A Meaner Canada : Junk Politics and the Omnibus Crime Bill

Canada’s new Parliament is poised to reshape Canada’s criminal justice system and, in significant ways, Canada itself.   Within 100 sitting days of its resumption Parliament will pass an omnibus “tough on criminals” bill that represents the biggest change to our justice system in recent memory.  But these changes are coming with disturbingly little controversy or opposition.  They are not part of some so-called hidden agenda.  This is what most or at least many Canadians voted for and, among those who did not, few seem much worried.  Political opposition has been muted.  Who wants to be seen as soft on crime, soft on criminals, concerned about inmates?  Whether through our active support or our indifferent silence we are all participating in a watershed moment for Canada without so much as a tough conversation.  And it matters, it matters for our safety and it matters for the kind of country we are becoming.  Surely one key test of any society is how we treat the most vulnerable and, even more particularly, the most despised.  Justice policies offer a glimpse into the soul of a nation.

Before getting to the substance, let me admit that a very significant part of my public service career was spent in the justice sector, in what was then the Ministry of the Solicitor General (now Public Safety), the Justice Department and the National Parole Board. Let me add that in all the time I worked on these issues I never met an official, elected or unelected, who was “soft on crime”, not ever, not once. We had of course many debates, many disagreements, but without exception those charged with policy and practice cared about victims and their families, wanted to prevent crime when they could and reduce its economic and human costs when they could not. Policies and practice were guided by three imperatives: public safety – what does the evidence tell us about what works to make our homes and streets safe; freedom – how to ensure a measured response that protects our civil liberties and constrains the state and holds it accountable when our freedom is at stake; and justice – what is a just, that is, proportionate and humane punishment, when a citizen is found guilty of a crime.  These are difficult questions and can rub up against each other but, on balance, we have done pretty well.  Of course the system must adapt to changing times and new knowledge, but rates of crime and violence have been falling for about three decades.  That does not permit complacency but nor does it suggest the need for a fundamental change of direction.

So, where are we now headed?  And why?

As in any Omnibus legislation, the Bill contains some good things, some bad things, some very bad things, and some things that need clarification.  And all of this deserves debate.  The National Post did a pretty thorough and balanced review of the elements which I won’t try to reproduce here.  But the direction of these proposals, on top of legislation passed in the previous session, is clear:  more focus on punishment, greater use of prison as a penalty, increased police powers, and fewer protections of our privacy and civil liberties.  Mandatory minimum sentences will increase prison time not only for sexual predators but for those convicted of growing a few marijuana plants.  Even as police discretion is increased, the discretion of judges will be further constrained, making it harder for them to fit the penalty to the circumstances, to address aggravating and mitigating factors.  House arrest will be off-limits even for some property offences.  Young Offenders provisions will be toughened up. Pardons will be more difficult to get.  Surveillance of our internet activity will be easier and without warrant, and preventive detention of those we fear might commit terrorist acts will continue with the process to determine its use to be secret and therefore outside public scrutiny.

What’s wrong with this, many will ask.  For one thing, the evidence and the experts are pretty much in agreement that this will not make us safer.  These kinds of policies, mandatory minimum sentences for example, have proved to be expensive but without any measurable contribution to safety.  Quite the contrary, and these are not the views of bleeding hearts, soft on crime. Most of these experts here and elsewhere know that some people belong in prison because justice demands it and that some need to be there because they present a continuing danger. In fact, Canada uses prison as a punishment far more than our European counterparts.  But we have also learned – from the evidence and from our experience – that prison can harden those who would have been better diverted from the system in the first instance and that overlong sentences can lose those who might otherwise have been successfully integrated into their communities as law-abiding citizens.  We have learned  that a preoccupation with punishment can easily divert us from doing what actually makes us safer.  And, in its way most troubling, these policies make for a meaner Canada.

For another thing, we know that the preservation of our freedoms, our privacy, our civil liberties requires strong constraints on government’s ability to interfere with those freedoms – that is what warrants are all about, and fair and open trials.   That means that if we want to live in a free and democratic society we have to be ready to live with the inevitable risk that entails – and in our pretty safe country, with our balanced crime policies, that has been relatively little to ask.   How is it that we are so muted as our  civil liberties are undermined?  Why is it that we seem more worked up about the risks of government intervention in commerce than we do with its interference in our fundamental freedoms?

For yet another thing, these policies cost money, lots of money.  Imprisonment is expensive.  And that means less money for those things that might have made us truly safer – prevention, education, rehabilitation.  In many respects the dollar we spend on social policy is non-discretionary.  The only question is what proportion do we choose to spend on avoiding problems through, say, addressing the unsupportable and growing level of inequality in Canada and what proportion do we spend on the back end, especially prison, to deal, in part at least, with the consequences of inequality and our inattention to it.  Getting tough on crime often means getting tough on the poor, the troubled, and the excluded.  In Canada, the consequences of these policies fall most heavily on aboriginal people.  In 2007/08 in Saskatchewan, for example, aboriginal people constituted 11% of the population but 81% of new admissions to prison.

The consequences of a preoccupation with punishment can be insidious.  For example,  in the U.S. some years back, The Atlantic ran a series on the “prison industrial complex” setting out the long-term consequences of expansive prison building, when prisons become a major tool of regional economic development, in effect turning incarceration into an economic good.   More and more communities come to depend economically on their local jail or prison.  Any attempts to reverse course and possibly close prisons must, then,  contend with the inevitable opposition from communities afraid of losing the source of their livelihood.  How can this not make us lose sight of the human implications of ever more reliance on jails and prisons?

And let me repeat,  most troubling of all, this turn to “tough on criminals”  makes Canada a meaner – not safer – place.  And how depressingly ironic that we have chosen this direction just when the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered thousands of California prisoners released after decades of prison overuse due to policies similar to those we are introducing here.  This Court decision makes reference to Canada as a model because we have avoided the over-reliance on prisons  – and the cruel and unusual conditions that seem automatically to follow – without sacrifice to public safety.  But that was then.  What has happened?  Why?

Our greater openness to these “tough on criminals” policies and the reluctance of the opposition to take them on may reflect a more profound debasing of our politics, what the American critic Benjamin DeMott  has called “Junk Politics”.  In his articles and books, DeMott is not calling for more civility, politer politics; he doesn’t mind a good fight, it seems.   His concern with contemporary politics is bigger than that; it resides in its refusal to lead citizens to higher ground, to challenge us, to inspire us to find our better selves.  Instead, he says, it  panders to our worst sentiments,  personalises everything, derides experts and evidence, tells us that we are great as we are, that we have every right to feel morally superior.  It divides the world up into good and bad, black and white.  Nuance kills.  This world, to paraphrase sociologist Orrin Klapp, is destructively divided up into heroes – “hard-working, law-abiding tax payers”; villains – criminals, terrorists and would-be terrorists; and fools – all the elites and so-called experts who are soft on crime and soft on terror.  This view gives not much space to the idea of redemption or, for that matter, to compassion, and brooks no debate on what the evidence might tell us or about the costs of punishment.

So what is the answer?  For those who think they are choosing safety, ask for the evidence and the costs and risks.  For those grateful that the Bill is not even worse, do not wait to get engaged.  This tough on criminals beast just gets hungrier the more we feed it.  As if to remove all doubt, the Ontario Conservative opposition just proposed that we introduce chain gangs and proudly puts punishment at the centre of its policies.  And for those who wonder what’s the point,  the Government has a majority, there is nothing we can do, how do we change the conversation if we won’t engage.  Our silence, for whatever our reason, is part of the problem.

And in the end, in the name of safety, we are less safe.  In the name of democracy, we are less free.  And in our refusal to have the debate, to move beyond our prejudices, our fears, our anger, we make Canada a meaner and smaller place.

91 Responses to “A Meaner Canada : Junk Politics and the Omnibus Crime Bill”
  1. A thoughtful well-written balanced piece, as usual. Trouble is, it’ll go way over the heads of the people who most need to read it.

    It ties into a larger pattern of people being all too ready to support things that in fact are not in their best interests, but that’s too involved a conversation for a comment on a blog post …

  2. Beijing York says:

    Alex, another thoughtful and important contribution. I was reminded of Bill Siksay, a lone voice in the wilderness, who was the only one in the House of Commons to vote against a prior omnibus crime bill. I’m also reminded of the disgraceful treatment of Omar Khadr by the government and media. Except for a few brave souls (e.g., Senator Dallaire and the aforementioned Bill Siksay), very few voices are given space or acknowledged as bringing valid points of debate to the table.

    “Soft on crime”, “victims’ rights” and “homegrown terrorism” are some of the memes that have been consistently trotted out for at least a decade if not longer. As a society, our moral compass has shifted dramatically. Social justice, compassion and humane treatment barely register on any politician’s radar these days. Activists, experts and concerned citizens have tried and continue to try to bring light on these issues and encourage debate but for the most part, they are drowned out by constant stories of crime, lax sentencing, police protections, gang violence, sexual predators and on and on.

    I agree with OB, that moving the majority into caring about the implications of the proposed legislation that will pass with probably little debate is near impossible. Even the LPC election battle cry about money for prisons and jets never actually amounted to any substantive debate about why the Harper government is so keen to build more prisons when crime rates are in decline. As for the erosion of our civil liberties, it seems that very few understand or care. Safety trumps freedom.

    • himelfarb says:

      Hi there. Always pleased to hear from you and depressingly on the money, as usual. I continue to hold on to an unreasonable level of optimism that we can change the conversation. We have to be braver, smarter, and constant. it is not a quick process – it wasn’t quick for the right when they took this on in the seventies and we have much to learn from what they did though admittedly we have far less money to do it.

  3. Zorpheous says:

    A very articulated article, but also very depressing,… Depressing because the lowest common denominator rules in politics and fear is easy to sell and people will willing and ignorantly hand over the freedoms for the appearance of greater security. Proof of this as/is the G20, the common argument is people should not have been there, and therefore they deserve what they got,…

  4. tono-bungay says:

    The tough-on-criminologists agenda isn’t intended to make people safer, it’s intended to define specific disliked groups, the archetypal “others”, as being responsible. Blaming a group of morally defective people, different from us and often not sharing our skin colour, is much more satisfying than addressing the more abstract real causes of crime, which don’t address the fear of the “other”. The other factor is the belief that help should only be given to the deserving. That may extend to a relative that makes a mistake, but doesn’t extend to strangers. Unfortunately, crime is most reduced by giving help to the undeserving. Who will have the courage to openly help undeserving strangers, depriving us of our only socially-acceptable outlet for racism?

  5. NJB says:

    I agree with your assessment that many Canadians will recoil from this movement towards a meaner society if we can overcome the hurdle of indifference. I think the conventional wisdom that there are no votes to be gained by defending the rights of the accused or convicted is wrong: there is an opportunity to articulate this as part of what it means to be a just and fair society in a way that will resonate with many Canadians. Treating it merely as a fiscal issue (prisons are expensive) misses an important opportunity to pose a more salient and fundamental critique at the level of values.

    Nowhere is our societal capacity for meanness through indifference more tragically illustrated than in the case of Ashley Smith – a teenager incarcerated for a very minor offence, whose sentence was extended to an unconscionable degree for various forms of “bad behaviour” while in custody, and whose cries for help were ignored until she tragically took her own life. And yet, despite the work of some media outlets in diligently following the resulting inquiry, no national political figure has articulated what this case says about how we think of justice as a society, or proposed a legislative response. Perhaps we, as citizens, need to let our representatives know that we care about these issues, and are on the lookout for political leaders who will articulate them in a way that reflects our aspirations to live in a more just society.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thank you very much for your important and thoughtful contribution to the discussion. You are absolutely right that we have a moral obligation to learn from the tragic death of Ashley Smith.

  6. Excellent post. The NDP. Liberals and the Bloc all made specific points against this “stupid on crime” agenda during the election. But the media drowns these out in their he said-she said format by giving more weight to official government claims and framing the correct viewpoint on crime as “critics”.

    It is a tough fight to go against the truthiness of “tough on crime” conservative agendas, facts are all well and good, but go against the visceral need for “punishment” and perceived unfairness. Politicians are quick to tap into our gut instincts, and if the media does not consistently call them on it, the gut instincts win.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks. I agree with you that it isn’t easy but a huge part of the problem is a generalized reluctance to call out the bogus claims – over and over if needs be – until people realize that they are less safe, less free, and just plain less.

      • Parliament_Nil says:

        If we as Canadians refuse to heed the hard lessons of California, then we will surely learn the lesson first-hand. Much like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the CONservatives’ duh-on-crime approach will actually make Canadians less safe. Frankly, I have to wonder which minister(s) are on the payroll of the Hells Angels, as that gang stands to gain more from the resulting crime wave than anyone else. When you have a government whose policies are written to jive with a centuries-old book of fractured fairy tales (i.e. The Bible), and 39% is enough to rule the country, expect things to get far worse before they get better.

        Having grown up on the wrong side of the tracks, I’m not one for blind optimism. It took California over twenty years to see the error of their ways; thousands of broken families, kids with nothing to lose who join gangs, twenty years of men (and women) being raped with the tacit approval of the state. People from all walks of life, seeing their children die over a single poor decision. Yet somehow, there’s still political capital in scapegoating the least among us.

        People in the rural West and the 905 apparently haven’t seen enough of these things to vote differently, but they will. The only question is how long they will suffer by their own hand. Chalk it up to fundamentalism: Be it religious or capitalist (!), the most “pious” among us will suffer the fewest consequences, and continue their zombie-like bloc voting.

        Without being overly dramatic, I can say that this government’s “new” direction will cost thousands of Canadian lives. Few of them will be Conservatives though, so let the slaughter begin!

      • himelfarb says:

        Thanks, I follow your tweats with interest. I must confess to being optimistic in ways that annoy even my closest friends.

  7. Alex: Thank you for engaging on this important issue and providing such insight. Many of us who are committed to community safety are troubled by the direction of criminal justice and corrections reform. The Omnibus Bill serves to draw attention away from some of the true problems in our system, such as the remand crisis and lack of access to justice, and puts a focus on issues that have little or nothing to do with public safety. Perhaps the sheer size of the Omnibus Bill will provide us with an opportunity to consult and improve the proposals based on evidence and principles of justice, efficacy, and humanity. The proposed measures run the risk of being an expensive undermining of longer term community safety and an immediate undermining of the safety of those in our correctional facilities, both offenders and guards. How much justice and community safety are Canadian citizens – federal, provincial and municipal tax payers – really getting in this set of proposed reforms? Could the stated policy objectives not be achieved more effectively, more justly, and more humanely? In the interests of justice and community safety, the John Howard Society of Canada is keen to work with others to cost out these reforms, consider alternatives and improvements, and support measures that are fair, effective, and humane responses to the causes and consequences of crime. I invite economists, financial analysts, justice and corrections system stakeholders, academics, other non-government organizations, provincial, territorial, federal, and municipal government analysts, tax payers and all concerned Canadians to join us in this endeavour. Catherine Latimer, Executive Director of the John Howard Society of Canada

    • himelfarb says:

      Thank you Cathy and congratulations to you – and to the John Howard Society – on your new appointment. I couldn’t agree more and think your last sentence sets out very well the path forward.

      • Kim Pate says:

        Many thanks, Alex and Catherine, for your clear and brilliant articulation of the issues with which we must all be concerned. Personally, as well as on behalf of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, I look forward to continuing to work with you to ensure that Canadians insist that their Members of Parliament fulfill their democratic and fiduciary obligations, and not pass legislation for which they do not fully comprehend the social, human, and fiscal costs associated therewith. We must also seek the repeal of legislation passed without similar full disclosure.

      • himelfarb says:

        Thanks Kim. Your leadership on these issues has been unwavering and important to us all.

  8. Bill says:


    I know the cathartic effect of getting my thoughts on “paper”. Thank you so much for sharing your wise thoughts so articulately. The observation “it panders to our worst sentiments, personalises everything, derides experts and evidence, tells us that we are great as we are, that we have every right to feel morally superior” reminds me of Einstein: beware of flatterers who come preaching hate.

    It’s depressing and discouraging and it would be easy to give up but, while it is true that we can only do what we can, we can do all that.

    • himelfarb says:

      Bill, you got that absolutely right. It was a great catharsis. And your conclusion is a perfect ending to the piece- “if it is true that wecan only do what we can, we can do all that.”

  9. EBGBs says:

    At the core of all these and so many issues is that mainstream media is now largely owned by large monopolies with a big “C” Conservative agenda. Listen to any open line talk shows, read a news paper and by and large, you will hear how the TSX is doing, the price of a barrel of oil, gold, silver and commodities. I mean, they don’t even try and hide it anymore. Anyone with an open mind and who is critical of the types of totalitarianism being made into law is called a “Bleeding Heart Liberal”, they are marginalized, ridiculed and on and on. Unfortunately, (maybe it’s the fluoride?) but people seem to be buying into all this stuff because they saw it on TV, heard it on the radio or read it.

    Meanwhile, people are kept in fear of an artificial “bogey man” and distracted by increasingly “risqué” shows, songs and video games to keep the masses distracted. The only frontier left untouched is the Internet, they see it as a threat and are going after it now. Unbelievable. btw Reference to California is a joke when you consider that Obama just signed a 4 year, even tougher patriotic act that effectively is turning the US into a police state. We are just a step or two behind. Thanks for keeping the light on this.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks for reminding us of the important role of the media but notwithstanding what you say I am convinced that when our progressive leaders decide to brave the inevitable personal attacks that come with taking on this agenda, they will be given their space in the media. Thanks for your valuable addition to the discussion.

  10. Brad says:

    Thanks for this Alex, and thanks to all those commenting. Everyone has had something good and important to say.

    As noted, there’s always a risk in analyzing complex issue in terms of “black and white” because when it comes to human actions and interactions it is an infinite variety of gray. But it does seem to me that the debate really boils down to individual perceptions of reality – what’s most important to me? Is it that all I really care about is “what’s in it for me?”, or is it about “What’s in it for all of us – together?”

    I think the road the Harper is taking us down is based on the former, while the majority of Canadians are firmly in the world of the latter. And everything I’ve seen concerning public opinion surveys on these issues supports my view on that.

    The tragedy is that none of the Parties in the last election had the guts to make this “the election issue” – to stand up and say, “This is wrong, and here’s what we’ll do to make our communities safer.”

    I think that would have resonated with a great many Canadians, and we would not now be heading down the road that the majority given to the Harper ensures.

    And while I agree that everyone who agrees with what you’ve said Alex ought to speak up (publicly), I also am convinced that it will make no difference – it will not change the Harper’s mind because the Harper has no need to change his mind – he is infallible. But what it might do is convince the opposition parties that they have nothing to lose in 4 years time by making “stupid on crime” the election issue – and everything to gain.

    And the continual erosion of our civil liberties and human rights is the subject of another rant altogether.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks for ranting along with us Brad. I think we can make a difference. With rare exceptions, governments prefer to make big changes in small increments, so that we hardly notice and by the time we do we have gotten used to the new way orb resigned to it. By being vigilant, by speaking up, wen can make sure that we don’t just sleepwalk into big change. In any case, speaking out may also as you say create room for our political leaders to do the same,

  11. Gus Richardson says:

    When emotion triumphs over reason all kinds of ridiculous results can occur. This paradoxical and ironic approach to public safety qualifys as such. It will be expensive, oppressive, futile and harmful; and similar approaches in other jurisdictions are currently being abandoned as criminal justice policy. I often wonder if those who support this approach really believe that the changes will work and make us more safe, or whether it represents a simple cynical exercise in doing something that will prove politically popular at the polls. A nation that sees crime as sensational entertainment hungers for more punishment no matter what the reality. Politicians who place their ideologies over legitimate data will give the voters what they want irrespective of the consequences. Perhaps instead of arguing about the questionable wisdom, impact and morality of these changes, we should demonstrate how hopeless a business case they represent. Ain’t no way to fight a defecit!Thanks for writing such a clear and compelling article.

  12. Graham Stewart says:

    A great article that I agree with entirely, but I also wonder if our apparent discouragement is blinding us the kind of analysis that might give us some hope that we might be able to influence what is happening?
    It seems to me that there are two grounds on which we can build a system of punishment. The first is that we punish people for what they do and the other punishes people for what they are. If we punish in response to what they do then the punishment must necessarily be limited to by objective of having people live within the law. If we punish people for what they are, then any punishment is justified for as long as they remain as they are. Principles like the least restrictive measure and proportionality seem naive, silly and irrelevant.
    In fact, I think we can easily justify punishing people for what they are if we believe that they don’t change. Mandatory minimum sentences through to abolishing pardons are all good be-cause they inflict pain on those undeserving of anything but our disapproval. This view is the child of despair born in the belief in our inability to influence others. It is not irrational if you accept the false premise.
    I don’t think the evidence-influenced people will ever convince the evidence –suspicious people of anything by loading on even more of the same complex nuanced evidence. If there is any hope, I think it will be in our ability to address the despair that is at the root of the hard-line proponents. We might succeed If we could demonstrate convincingly that most “criminals” do eventually change their ways. If we could do that single thing then I think this whole conversa-tion would necessarily have to change.

    • himelfarb says:

      I find a good deal of merit in your comments though I believe proportionality to be an important principle. Your comments make me think that a follow up post is a good idea. Stay tuned, and thanks.

      • Brad says:

        Of course, comments from Graham are always thoughtful and pointed and as usual, Graham, on this issue you’ve clearly identified the issue. As our friend, Dan Gardner keeps pointing out, we need the stories that will positively impact people at the emotional level to counter the stories that are so prevalent in the media that negatively impact most people emotionally. We can trot out statistics and comparisons until we’re blue in the face and we won’t make any difference to those that actual count – the perceived voting base. We don’t have to convince the civil service – they already know, and once upon a time in the not too distant past, that was important because they could impact the development of public policy. But that is no longer the case. The civil service is just as much “the other” as criminologists and other academics, lawyers, and anyone who advocates evidence-based development of public policy.

        The thing that I have the most difficulty with though, is that the staunchest supporters of the Harper are presumably the same ones that are most opposed to government interference in their lives – the very thing that we’re seeing more and more of. Don’t they get it? Going down this road means ever increasing government involvement in our lives – and not in a positive, supportive way.

  13. I’ll say this for you, Alex: you certainly attract a fine class of comments.

    One of the things I’m struggling with: how do you convince people of anything when they’re so resy impervious to evidence?

  14. Sorry – that should be “resolutely.”

  15. Peter says:

    A very good piece, but Mr. Himmelfarb, if you really want to generate a national, non-partisan debate, you are going to have to be careful about using statistics casually and slipping into language that adds up to little more than a declaration of moral superiority. I’m a conservative who is also quite worried about this “lock ’em up” mentality and who is generally opposed to mandatory sentences, so I share your concerns. You are also quite right that several GOP governors are trying to move away from imprisonment and find creative and less barbaric ways to punish crime for a variety of reasons. But this shibboleth one finds almost daily on every leftist blog about how crime has been declining for years is very distorting. In fact, violent crime, the kind of crime that people are worried about, has been rising steadily and is much, much higher than forty years ago. It is also becoming more vicious, as many parents with teens in school can attest. There was more basis to Stockwell Day’s much-mocked comments about unreported crime than manybien pensants were willing to admit, but then, trashing the Cons was more important to many of them than doing anything effective about crime.

    It’s fine to claim you never worked with anyone who claimed to be “soft on crime”. I can believe that–who would say that?–but surely the issue is not the motivation of your colleagues but rather the objective results of their efforts over several decades, and also those of the judiciary. Schools can no longer effect the kind of direct, physical punishment young hoodlums would actually respect. Self-help and self-protection has become legally dicey. The legal system gives youth so much deference and protection that gangs are now reported to use the under-aged to do their dirty work. All manner of legal protections have been proclaimed under the Charter for the highest of noble purposes that play well in well-to-do neighbourhoods, but not so much in the communities where the crime actually occurs.

    And what can you possibly mean when you say Surely one key test of any society is how we treat the most vulnerable and, even more particularly, the most despised.? Are you unaware that to a large extent the problem is that the most despised prey on the most vulnerable? If you want to take the side of the most despised and tell the most vulnerable to be patient while some longterm solution like better education or more money for probation services takes effect, just say so, but please don’t duck the hard issues by telling us how much you love everybody equally.

    A national debate about a lot of thses issues is most definiterly needed, as are some serious challenges to the thinking underlying the omnibus bill. That is unlikely to happen if one side just keeps hauling out distorted statistics to deny there is anything to worry about and congratulates itself for being so much more compassionate than the meanies on the other side.

    • himelfarb says:

      This comment, well considered and written, is too big for a glib reply but these issues will be the focus of the next thing I write. Thanks.

    • em_knudsen says:

      Peter – it’s simply not the case that violent crime has been rising steadily or dramatically. I’d argue that much of data in the link you provided is taken out of context or not backed up properly. It’s true that rates of violent crime haven’t fallen as far and fast as other crime rates, but all have gone down since the 1990s. The new crime severity index also shows decreases. Check out the latest, non-distorted, StatsCan data: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/100720/dq100720a-eng.htm http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/2010001/article/11146-eng.htm
      I’m not sure why people feel so strongly that violent crime is going up – is it the result of some successful political spin to get us to support ‘tough on crime’ policy? are we all susceptible to this idea that the past was ‘a golden age of low crime’? There’s a fantastic book about this last idea by Geoffrey Pearson called ‘Hooligan’ which traces the idea of the ‘new breed of youth criminals’ back many decades (see his writing here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2006/nov/08/youthjustice.comment)

      I’m not sure about your statements about young people – gangs have long used kids as ‘runners’, it’s deplorable but nothing new. And I’m pretty sure there’s not empirical association between physically punishing kids and better behaviour. The only thing that’s really clear is that kids from strong, healthy families with good supports are less likely to committ crimes: http://www.crvawc.ca/documents/ncpcfinal.pdf

      Your last point is a really interesting one and an idea shared by a lot of people, I think, namely that there’s a fundamental difference between predatory criminals and the vulnerable rest of us. In fact, criminals are more likely to be vulnerable, in a variety of ways, than the rest of us and they’re more likely to have been victims of crime themselves. I think it’s interesting because if we could disrupt that idea – or at least give it some context – we’d come a long way to diffusing the moral panic from the criminal justice policy debate and developing more sensible policy.

      • himelfarb says:

        terrific response. As Mark Hammer points out in these comments, the repeated reporting of rare but grizzly crimes may lead us to exaggerate their incidence notwithstanding the evidence, just as seeing images over and over again of the same police car burning during the Toronto G8 led some to exaggerate the extent of protest violence and threat. And your point about prisoners is also dead on. Some of the material in these comments from the John Howard Society point us to numerous stories of prisoners who turned their lives around and helped others break out of the cycle of abuse and crime. They also provide recidivism data that show that these are not rare exceptions. I am working on a follow up to this post that deal with myths about crime and offenders and the extent to which these myths feed an are fed by prejudice and fear. Thanks for your contribution and links.

  16. Sol Chrom says:

    A few years ago I had a beer with a U.S. Army helicopter pilot who’d been seconded to the “War on Drugs.” It was a little surprising that he was willing to talk so candidly, but he estimated that when you added up all the maintenance, man-hours and logistical support, it was costing an average of $50,000 to destroy one marijuana plant — and it wasn’t even making a dent in the traffic.

    So it’s not as if the preference for expensive and ineffective policies that play well politically in the short term are anything new. In fact, you could almost call it an addiction …

    • himelfarb says:

      Sol, right on the money and this particular addiction deserves separate treatment. Thanks for this and for your constant support on these issues. It means a lot.

  17. Mark Hammer says:

    I draw a distinction between policy that is developed in response to instances/cases and how they make us *feel*, versus policy developed to address what are acknowledged as enduring challenges. The former tends to eschew nuances and ignore integration with all other policy and law, while the latter (as painfully slow as it might be in coming) is ALL about nuance, context, and long-term results.

    Policy that emanates from how something makes us feel, can be policy with a sadly short memory, if one is principally concerned with how something makes you (or voters) feel right NOW. What saddens me about the entire “tough on crime” thing is that it is guided by anger, and a very short-sighted anger at that. I rarely see people who support getting “tough” asking themselves “When this person is released, how will they be a better person, and someone I wouldn’t mind living next door or downstairs from? What mechanisms and initiatives are in place, other than depending on the offender to spontaneously come to the conclusions I’d hope they come to during their incarceration?”. From their vantage point, the policy has done its job at the moment it allows them to feel vindicated and avenged. I don’t consider that public policy, but rather something much less. Let’s call it serving the public mood rather than serving the public interest.

    As an aside, I encourage those interested in crime issues to learn more about Nobel winners Dan Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s notion of the “availability heuristic”, one of the more pertinent social psychological constructs when it comes to crime. The notion is that, because frequently-occurring things tend to come to mind more readily, humans tend to extraplate backwards, and guess-timate the frequency with which events occur, based on the ease with which richly-detailed examples enter one’s thoughts, or become “available” to awareness. A grisly crime, whose coverage is repeated ad nauseum on a 24hr news channel, tends to increase the perceived frequency with which such violent crimes actually happen, relative to those which are covered less and, hence, enter our thoughts less. No great revelation, then, that seniors, and those who tend to watch a lot of television news, tend to overestimate the prevalence of crime in their area. And, by extension, no great revelation that these same individuals find much that appeals in the “tough on crime” agenda.

    For those interested, the North American Correctional and Criminal Justice Psychology Conference is taking place this week along with the Canadian Psychological Association Annual Convention, at the Sheraton in downtown Toronto. Among the many talks, Thursday afternoon (2:30, June 2) there’ll be a 90 minute invited presentation by eminent forensic psychologist Dr. Joel Dvoskin, entitled “Crime and Punishment Psychology: How to spend a fortune making America less safe”.

    • himelfarb says:

      The “availability heuristic” is fascinating, Mark and new to me. I think the distinction you make between incident driven and evidence driven policy is hugely important. Those working in crime policy are always reminding themselves that “cases” make for bad policy. In this business, though, policy is often shaped by grizzly though rare cases. This is an area worth considerably more attention. Thanks for your contribution

      • Mark Hammer says:

        Pleased to provide something of interest. Ironically, Kahneman and Tversky took the prize for Economics in 2002, one year after Joseph Stiglitz, whom you were kind enough to direct my attention to a few months ago when you had your facebook Q&A.. So, happy to return the favour.

  18. Graham Stewart says:

    I may have been misunderstood. I too am very much in support of a proportional sentencing structure, in part, because I also think that people change. (Very few die of old age in prison which is what one might expect if no one ever changed their behaviour). My point was simply that if you think that “once a criminal, always a criminal” is true, proportionality in sentencing stops making sense. Neither would granting pardons make sense as you would be viewed as being naive.
    People can get drawn in to the despairing talk easily as they fear looking like they are not in touch with reality to be otherwise. In fact, I believe that people want to be optimistic and when someone or something sparks that optimism it goes off like wildfire. The election of Obama in a country with the most cynical politics and during very difficult and angry times speaks to that power. The fact is that the negativism of this government is both at the base of its power and is also, perhaps, its greatest vulnerability.

    • Himelfarb says:

      I communicated badly – I totally agree with you and think that showing real stories, of which there are many, of people who turned their lives around when given a chance is extremely important, as is showing how some policies make that much less likely to occur. And you are right that we have to break through the negativism.

    • himelfarb says:

      But Graham, let me also reiterate what you already know (and some do not like): proportionality is not just about what works – though that certainly – but is also about what is just and humane. This cannot be dismissed as “bleeding heart” compassion. Societies that allow cruel and inhuman punishment or punishment disproportionate to the offence breed a culture of violence and do damage to their own shared humanity. You are right though that the many and heartening stories of people who have turned around their lives (such as those stories shared by Brad} must be told and will make a difference. I am pleased to see that you continue to provide leadership on these issues.

      • Graham Stewart says:

        Perhaps this is too obvious a point to warrant the space, but I was thinking of more than just good news stories – important as they are. People are moved by the stories but the hard liners tend to think that the individuals involved are exceptions – thereby holding to their view that criminals don’t change.
        I think the stories need to illustrate, but cannot replace the broad range of data that shows that success after prison is not a rare event at all. I really don’t understand why we have such a negative view of the chances of success. Perhaps that is just another entrenched ideologically determined view on long-term recidivism that is as resistant to data and statistics as everything else, but my sense is that if there is only one bit of data that needs to penetrate the resistance, this should be it.

      • himelfarb says:

        I’m with you – how do I get the latest recidivism data?

      • Graham Stewart says:

        The best summary of federal recidivism data can be found here: http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/res/cor/rep/2010-ccrso-eng.aspx . But it is a summary only. It is only for federal offenders and lacks much of the detail we need. One of the problems is that recidivism is measured in so many different ways with different assumptions and is scattered throughout so many publications that it can be a daunting task to bring it together. It is interesting that for a topic that is supposed to be of such great concern to the public that there is no comprehensive data published in a central location and practically nothing at all on provincial correctional recidivism. It would be a great project for someone to search through the many sources and bring it together. That might be a good project for a student summer placement and could well be a potent tool.

      • himelfarb says:

        Thanks for the link Graham and good idea for a project.

      • Graham Stewart says:

        Alex: For more information on recidivism see http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/res/cor/sum/cprs200307_1-eng.aspx , The author, James Bonta, would be a logical and authoritative person to talk to. His contact information is shown on the web page.

      • himelfarb says:

        Thanks Graham. Will do.

  19. Beijing York says:

    Bravo for inspiring such excellent commentary, Alex. It was a real treat to check in and see so much dialogue.

    I never doubted that the John Howard and Elizabeth Fry members were agitating to protect the rights of those accused and penalized but it’s been so long since our media has given them a chance to voice their opinions and expertise. It was heartwarming to see both organizations represented here.

  20. Brad says:

    What I’m talking about.


    Watch the videos on the home page (I can’t seem to find them on YouTube) – this is telling the stories the way they need to be told. I can’t watch these without it bringing tears to my eyes.

  21. Hi Alex,

    Writing from Wikileaks Central.

    We have really enjoyed your calm and rational analysis of the changes coming for Canada, and would like to share your knowledge with our readers if you are willing. If you are interested in publishing this article (or others in the future) with us, please contact me at admin@wlcentral.org and please indicate what name you would wish to appear as author, and what url you would like a link to under your name (not required).

    Thank you for all of your effort in explaining this, I agree that Canadian silence is part of the problem, if not the full problem. It was horrifying to read in the US State cables how the US and Canadian governments banked on Canadian apathy to allow them to do as they pleased and ignore court orders. As one example: http://wlcentral.org/node/1779

    From cable 08OTTAWA990 : “The apparent hope of Khadr’s Canadian and U.S. lawyers that dramatic footage of Khadr’s tears and complaints about sleep deprivation in his meeting with CSIS officials would create a groundswell of more favorable public opinion and impel the government to reverse course seems to have failed. … competing joys of the all-too-brief Canadian summer essentially have kept any genuine pressure off the government.”

    From cable 09OTTAWA629, “There would be virtually no political blowback domestically for the Conservative Party if the government chooses to pursue an appeal, making this a strong likelihood.”

    It’s not that they thought Canadians agreed … they knew Canadians didn’t care.

  22. Doug K says:

    Excellent piece – perhaps one of the unanticipated benefits of four years without an election hanging over our heads will be the emergence of the centre left from it’s fear of active opposition to such measures. In a majority there are no negative consequences for putting an alternative view forward as there will not be an election until 2015.

    The dumbing down of Canadian politics to the lowest conceivable common denominator is the core of the junk politics that fuels the cynicism surrounding public policy debate. Over the next four years those opposing measures such as the omnibus crime bill must take the opportunity to speak out against them, provide alternatives and let the electorate know that there are differing views out there that have merit.

    Here’s to hoping that will happen.

  23. Dan says:

    Stop this bill, ruining peoples lives by locking them up doesnt solve everything, infact it makes alot worse. Tougher on criminals? ha more like how tougher on your taxes, record low crimrates and record high spending on criminals, there are much better ways to help people instead of hurting them with tougher sentences. someone please tell me how it can be stopped.

    “Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”
    ~Benjamin Franklin

    dont forget it

  24. Not to take anything away from the larger points raised in this piece and the conversation, Alex, but I also have a more immediate and practical concern. Prisons are already full. Some are overfull, with extra cots in the cells or, as in my region, the gym converted to a dormitory, so prisoners do not even have a chance to move around. Prisons are sad and uncomfortable places at best, but currently too many of them are far worse than that: disgusting and dangerous, not just for the prisoners, but for the staff as well.

    I agree that building new prisons is not how we want to drive regional economic development, but at this point, even that outcome looks good compared to the dangers posed by overcrowded prisons that are about to become much worse.

    I worry, too, that the Conservative push to deal with problems by criminalizing them, and punishing the criminals, is counterproductive, and nowhere is that more clearly seen that in the approach to drugs. Currently the Supreme Court of Canada has heard argument and will soon decide on the Vancouver safe injection site, which has proved that treating addiction as a health problem, not a criminal problem, makes the community safer and results in more addicts getting treatment for their addictions – and ending their participation in that crime. Even the Vancouver police support it, as consistent with their efforts to reduce crime and increase public safety. The argument against is entirely based on the theories you’ve unfolded above.

    Further criminalizing the fairly harmless use of marijuana is not only absurd, it is particularly hard on the aboriginal population, for whom alcohol is as dangerous as heroin. Decriminalizing the possession of homegrown marijuana would reduce dangerous crime, by reducing the market share of the violence-prone criminals who currently operate that extremely lucrative business.

    A former cop and prosecutor in the US I know once commented that he had fought in the war on drugs for forty years, and at its most effective, those efforts stopped maybe 10% of the traffic. And the only result, he said, was that prices went up 10%. There was no reduction in the number of lost souls.

    • himelfarb says:

      Of course you are right, Margarita, that overcrowded prisons are not acceptable but I think it’s safe to say that every new prison we build will get filled to overcrowding. That is what has happened wherever tough on criminals laws prevail. For example, Canada has large numbers of people in prison under remand ie, with no conviction, and the number is rising. We need to do something about this – and the answer here is not in creating more space. But yes the conditions in which we seek to rehabilitate offenders where we can and hold them when we cannot certainly do matter. On your last issue, have you seen this? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-13624303

  25. TIm says:

    Thanks for this civil blog.

    You put the question “Why is it that we seem more worked up about the risks of government intervention in commerce than we do with its interference in our fundamental freedoms?”

    I don’t know when the year of change was, but for about a decade news media, business people, and government speakers frequently refer to Canadians in general as “consumers” and “investors”, and hardly ever as “citizens”. I expect this is related to why fundamental freedoms are less top of the mind, and are just more difficult to get a conversation going about.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Tim. I think there is a great deal to what you say. Increasingly our opinion leaders treat us as consumers and our politicians sell their wares to us as political consumers rather than engaged citizens. But there’s a chicken and egg thing going here. Perhaps our success, collectively and personally, and here I think mostly of my generation, has changed us. Perhaps, seduced by that success, we have become complacent about our country and are more interested in protecting what we have accumulated than building something new. Many of us seem to have bought into the narcissism of the cult of the individual and the easy pleasures of material success. Given our economic woes, unsupportable levels of inequality, and climate change and deteriorating environment there’s no cause for complacency – it is time to speakmout for something better. How’s that for a Sunday night soapbox.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        Saturday morning, I was fortunate enough to attend an invited talk to the Canadian Psychological Association by Ed Diener, AKA “Dr. Happy” ( http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/ed-diener/ ), one of the more reknowned proponents of what is collectively referred to as “positive psychology”. Excellent talk, that he’ll be happy to forward (ediener@illinois.edu).

        One of the points he made during the talk was that public policy at the highest levels seems to be made chiefly on economic grounds by economists, and he wondered why there weren’t more psychologists at the policy table (and I’ll presume he would have said sociologists if he had been speaking to that particular segment of the social science community). What prompts him to this view is his observation from data he gathers worldwide through the Gallup Organization, of the divergence between economic indices of wealth, and happiness/well-being.

        I do not mention this to arrive at the trite conclusion that “money can’t buy happiness”. Rather, public policy development that sharpens its focus based on economic factors *alone* is likely going to merely hit at the edge of the target, and never hit the bull’s eye. The issue is not JUST the policy-makers, but the voters too, who are often minimally cogniscent of what *does* make them happy and maximize well-being. It is their narrow focus that results in policy-makers being comprised of others with too narrow a focus for the job at hand.

        In the case of attitudes towards correctional systems and justice, offenders seem to be treated almost like market competitors, such that if we can just “get them out of the way”, we will flourish. We never ask the question of what it would take to foster a more harmonious community.

        As for the attributions we make about offenders – that they are “always going to be like that”, and deserve to be put away – my sense is that this is merely one component of a broader and fairly pervasive belief system about the nature of human behavioural tendencies, both good AND bad. It’s not all that far from believing an offender can never change and should be separated from society, to believing that some athlete, performer, or researcher’s competence is innate, and something that one could never ever aspire to regardless of circumstances/opportunities or time invested. We may praise the one and scorn the other, but both are based on assumptions about what is and isn’t “built in” to individuals, and what is and isn’t amenable to improvement in humans. Both rather embarrassing displays of social Darwinism, to my mind.

      • himelfarb says:

        Thanks Mark, I will follow up. One only need look at how economists, in Canada at least, are driving the health care debate – you would think that they would have their hands full with our troubled economy. In any case,for at least three decades, the economists’ model of humanity has dominated policy discourse. That is to say,we humans are viewed as self-interested materialists, and our polices and politics reflect this with, no doubt, self-fulfilling consequences. Many thinkers and researchers, conservative and progressive, have started to express concern about the limits and dangers of this view, reminding us that cooperation, loyalty, generosity, and curiosity are every bit as human, and essential to our well-being individually and collectively. It is heartening to see some of the leading economists internationally picking up these themes even if classical neo- liberal (or neo-conservative, if you prefer) economics seems to prevail here.

  26. Catherine Gogan says:

    Thank you Mr Himelfarb for engaging in this very important issue and providing such insight. . I wish to endorse the views expressed by Catherine Latimer, the recently appointed Executive Director of the John Howard Society of Canada (JHSC) Our Board met in Ottawa the last weekend in May. The Omnibus Bill causes much concern to the representatives from all the Provinces and Territories, and was a major topic of discussion during our deliberations. Fear was expressed that the Bill itself will draw attention away from the real problems that exist in the justice system.

    JHSC is truely blessed to have been able to recruit a leader of Ms Latimer’s caliber and experience at this very critical time in our history. The Board has asked her to develop her objectives and work plan for the next 18 months for discussion at our AGM in October. The impact of the Omnibus Bill is very high on her agenda. Her invitationton to the many stakeholder groups including ecomomists, financial analysts, academics, non government organizations, tax payers and all concerned Canadians to join JHSC in this endevour is very consistent with our mandate.

    In the interest of justice and community safety JHSC is kean to work with others to cost proposed reforms, consider alternatives and improvements and support measures that are fair, effective, and humane responses to the causes and consequences of crime.
    Catherine Gogan

    • himelfarb says:

      Thank you for this Catherine and for the important contribution that you, your board and your organization have made and continue to make in support of public safety and justice.

  27. Jonathan Eskedjian says:

    Professor Himelfarb,

    This, as has been the case with all of the other articles you’ve posted in the past that I have had the pleasure to read, touches on some very important issues, and is inspired in its conception and delivery. I applaud you once again for bringing a pressing matter to light with your blogging.

    I will begin by pointing out that I strongly believe in pulling back so as to examine the big picture with regards to almost all problems. It is far too often that people focus in too closely on details, and in doing so, lose themselves, and fail to understand or see root causes or possible solutions which can only be discovered by having a more complete understanding of the system as a whole and the way in which it operates. This, in effect, is what occurs when people adopt the “Tough On Crime” stance you describe in this piece.

    Essentially, the ways in which people with the “Tough On Crime” mindset react to rising levels of crime, or crimes themselves, are a perfect example of this sort of myopia, for they tend to become overly emotional, and focus in on the immediate management of crimes and criminals within society, when in fact these things are but symptoms of greater systemic malfunctions within the whole, and should be studied logically so as to deduce what their true causes are.

    If all you are ever doing is jailing criminals without understanding or combating what truly CAUSES criminality within your population (inequality/poverty/lack of options), you will never solve the problem. Its like fighting a disease’s symptoms without ever curing it completely.

    Insofar as I see it, crime within a society is like pain somewhere in our bodies. It is a reaction to certain existent variables that are telling us something is amiss, that something is inherently wrong and needs fixing… And just as pain should never be treated at its location, but at its true source (you don’t put a bandage on a cancer sore, you cure the cancer itself), so must crime be dealt with at its systemic sources, and not at the points of its various manifestations within a societal context.

    The proposed changes to our judicial and penal systems are a step in exactly the wrong direction.

    I sincerely hope more people within the political system and population wake up to what the implications of becoming more “Tough On Crime” truly are… But it is a fool’s hope I think. I am not overly optimistic that people will be able to see and react to this threat in time to stop this “Omnibus Legislation”.

    Also, here is an interesting documentary which can provide a bit of a glance at the American justice/jail system (that the current government seems intent on mimicking) and the problems within it. I found it fairly illuminating and worth watching.


    • himelfarb says:

      Jonathan, Always great to get your comments. Whatever the likelihood of success on the omnibus bill we ought not to be silent and by our silence give implicit consent to continual escalation. Thanks for the great link.

  28. Of course there are some people who are simply criminals, and should feel the full force of the law.

    We have been on the “soft on crime” track for many years now.

    certainly the war on drugs should end, but violent offenders should be given no quarter.

    This Blog post doesn’t even touch on the specifics of this bill, just lots of ruminations.

    This bill won’t give us a Prison industrial complex, not by a longshot.

    • himelfarb says:

      This post and the next provide links to the specifics of the bill which includes the very elements that the US, Australia and others have tried and are now moving away from because they have failed so badly at great cost. Canada is not and has not been “soft on crime”. We have used prison sentences far more than have European countries. And the recent articles in the mainstream media detailing the enormous increases in prison spending over the last five years, even before the current bill is passed, suggest your confidence about the prison industrial complex is not justified.

    • Brad says:

      Mr. Weissenberger,

      You make a number of alarming assertions that are extremely superficial:

      “some people are simply criminals” – what does that mean?
      “and should feel the full force of the law” – why? What is the intended/expected outcome, and what is the evidence to suggest that outcome will be achieved?
      “violent offenders” – all crimes of violence? From level 1 assault all the way to homicide?
      “should be given no quarter” – again, what does that mean? And again, what is the intended/expected outcome, and what is the evidence that supports that assertion?
      “Prison industrial complex” – I think the actual phrase was “military industrial complex”, and it was uttered by President Eisenhower (a Republican by the way) on leaving office and warning those that succeeded him to be extremely wary of the rising power of the . . .

      But the evidence from the US with regard to “tough on crime” criminal justice policies is overwhelming, and this Bill takes Canada even further down that road. The whole point of this post by Mr. Himelfarb, and all those commenting, is that there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the provisions in this Bill will make our country any safer, there is a considerable amount of evidence that the outcome will be that our country will be less safe than it is now, and the cost will be enormous. And you may rest assured, given the ideology of the Harper government on taxes, that the money to pay for this will not come from increased taxes – it will come from shifting money from social programs and education, the 2 areas that the evidence clearly shows does make our community safer.

      Oh, and the brunt of the increased costs will be borne by the Provinces (did you know that about 80% of all the people in gaol in Canada are in Provincial gaols? No? I thought not.) And the Provinces will also have to shift spending from other areas, and in all likelihood increase taxes, to pay for the cost of doubling (at the very least) the number of citizens presently incarcerated.

      The thing is Mr. Weissengerber, Mr. Himelfarb, and all the others that have been posting comments to this post all want our country to have less crime and to be safer for all citizens. Indeed, while I don’t personally know all those that have posted a comment, I do know many, and I know that these people have devoted their whole adult lives to effect that outcome.

      It actually is simple – the formulation of criminal justice policies should be based on evidence and not cliches.

  29. Chris says:


    I really appreciate this article that really does a great job of providing perspective and some context around the direction this crime bill will be moving our Country. I am just beginning a group called Impact Democracy – http://www.impactdemocracy.com that seeks to engage Canadians in the important debates of our time and take action on those issues. I was hoping to get in touch with you before our inaugural meeting this evening in Ottawa but was unable to find an e-mal for you. If you have any new comments that I could share with our group this evening please e-mail us at info@impactdemocracy.com – thank you for your article and for speaking up about this important issue facing our country,


    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Chris, Sorry we missed each other. I tracked down your site and think this is a terrific initiative. I wish we could have spoken before your meeting but would be pleased to chat and help if I can.

  30. anitamaclean says:

    I know your name mainly through my late partner Lothar Goetz who died in March 2010 from lung cancer. He thought very highly of you.

    I am now writing to you on behalf of Global Justice Committe at the Unitarian Congregation in Ottawa. We want to protest the upcoming Omnibus Crime Bill. What do you think would be the best way of doing this? Do you know of any other organization with whomt we could join forces. It is not just an unjust bill. It is also fiscally irresponsible.


    • himelfarb says:

      Hi Anita, I thought very highly of Lothar and am sorry to hear of his death. I expect that both the John Howard Society and Elizabeth Fry wil launch some actions, as will others no doubt, and I will email you contact info asap.

  31. Jim Hackler says:

    Hi Alex,
    I am glad to see you speak out on this issue. Your past experience in criminology and in the government gives you much insight into the issues.
    One negative impact of Omnibus Crime Bill is that it diverts public resources from programs that would actually reduce crime. In the latest issue of Justice Reports I tried to summarize the work of David Olds and the use of public health nurses working with disadvantaged mothers-to-be to help them become more confident mothers. Fifteen years later the children, and the mothers, are much more likely to be productive citizens.
    Dr. Harriet Macmillan, at McMaster’s, is planning a replication of this work in Canada. Instead of building prisons, support for struggling young mothers, in the long run, would probably have an impact on crime. Denise Savoie’s (MP from Victoria) proposals for legislation that would help families is compatible with the research done by David Olds.
    How do we get the public to realize that supporting young mothers is a much more effective way of reducing crime than the measures in the Crime Bill?
    Jim Hackler, formerly at U of Alberta, now adjunct at U of Victoria

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks for this Jim. I couldn’t agree more that the we would be safer and better off if the money were spent on just such initiatives rather than more prisons. I guess all we can do is keep speaking out as you are doing. I don’t know if you have followed Leadnow.ca’s work to promote greater public awareness and engagement on these issues but you may want to google their admirable efforts. Great hearing from you.

  32. Simon Mead says:

    What a well informed, well written piece. Thank you for this article. I was informed of this by one of your students at Glendon College in the MPIA program, and I am so happy she sent this to me. It feels as if the words were coming right out of my mouth, but of course more well stated. I am glad there are people out there that feel it is their responsibility to voice these concerns.

    • himelfarb says:

      Well thank you Simon. Very generous and welcome especially the day after the Commons passed C10. Lots of work to be done here.

      • Graham Stewart says:

        The disappointment about the passage of the omnibus crime Bill C-10 should not blind us to the fact that many Canadians are now much better informed about such matters than I expect was the case previously. Most often criticism of changes to criminal justice legislation has been pretty much limited to those connected professionally to the field. The complexity of the legislation and measures that most have never heard of compounded with the extensive criminological literature and banks of statistics simply makes the challenge to become informed too great for most people to undertake.
        Also problematic is the fact that much of the criminological literature seems counterintuitive. At first blush, for many the idea that harsher penalties will not deter crimes better is hard to understand. For this reason politicians can by simply appealing to the public’s anger and frustration through harsh measures, then defend those measures with embarrassingly simplistic and irrelevant arguments such as that “they care about victims”.
        Not this time. Interest in this Omnibus Crime Bill was substantial and growing every day. Online organizations sprang up to protest the measure, university groups expressed their opposition as did some mainline churches and professional associations – beyond those associated with criminal justice directly such as The Canadian Pediatric Society. Not since the death penalty debate in the mid eighties have I seen broad criminal justice policy spread beyond traditional groups.
        Provincial governments that seemingly had not bothered to figure out the implications of the legislation when it was before parliament as separate bills during the last parliament began to see the implications and react. Of importance is the fact that it is hard to find examples of sympathetic reporting in the media for the legislation. And recent newspaper polls, while unscientific, are interesting in that places like Winnipeg and Prince – cities with the highest crime rates and where one might expect to find the greatest support for the legislation – have shown more opposition than support.
        In spite of this government’s best efforts to scare Canadians into believing that the threat is so great that harsh periods of imprisonment are needed and justified, Canadians appear to have resisted those efforts.
        This time, and unlike the recent past, the opposition parties actually opposed much of what the bill contained as well as the government’s refusal to debate it, consider amendments, or provide believable cost estimates. It appears that they may be getting over their pathological fear of being called “soft on crime.”
        This was to be an easy one for the Conservatives. So easy they promised to do it in 100 days, without debate or cost estimates. It was to be the low-hanging fruit to mark their new government’s direction. Well, it marked their direction alright but the fruit was rotten. For many they appeared thuggish, dimwitted and irresponsible if not just mean. It would be hard to imagine that they now see this as a win given the fact that they were increasingly standing alone against a growing current of informed and principled criticism. Their claim to have a solid mandate from Canadians increasingly sounded hollow and misleading.
        If this makes the Conservatives think more carefully about this type of initiative in the future, then the diverse public opposition to it has had a good result. If this example of crass policy making has shaken more Canadians out of their complacency or given them a more informed window into criminal justice policy, then that would be a good result. If the media is now better informed and less inclined to print empty claims about harsh measures “protecting the public” without asking hard questions, that is good result. If politicians who believe in a principled and evidence-based criminal justice system have found the courage to speak, that is a good result too.
        The challenge for us now is to keep the momentum going. This government has promised more of the same and it would be naïve, to say the least, to think that they do not intend to continue with their agenda. What might slow them down is to realize that with the passage of C-10 the opposition to mindlessly harsh legislation has not evaporated and, in fact, has greater public appeal than the uninspired and hopeless policies they promote.
        Perhaps we need a website named we-told-you-so.ca where, over time, the actual impact of C-10 can be documented and their folly kept alive. Just a thought.

        Graham Stewart

      • himelfarb says:

        As always, a thoughtful, insightful comment with the bonus of a terrific idea. The I Told You So website. Perfect.

  33. Brad says:

    I was just a (relative) pup when the death penalty debate took place, but I have to agree with my friend Graham that the general public seems to be far more knowledgeable about criminal justice issues now than it was a year ago. I’ve been tracking very carefully the print media coverage of Bill C-10, thanks in large part being on the JHSC listserv and it seems to me that when the Harper government first announced that it would be introducing the Bill, we started to see at least one op.ed. or editorial a week in a major Canadian daily opposing it. Once it was introduced, it ramped up to at least one a day, and as it moved closer to passage, there wasn’t a day go by without a number of opposing pieces.

    The Sun chain excepted of course.

    It was also illuminating to read the Comments to these many pieces posted by readers, and to speculate how many were posted by minions in the PMO.

    It is heartening to read pieces, and see recurring comments noting how this legislation flies in the face of our Canadian Values.

    As research has demonstrated time and again, when you give Canadians the simple bare facts of the commission of a crime and the sentence rendered, the response tends to be “the sentence wasn’t harsh enough”. But when you give them the details of the crime, individuals involved and their backgrounds, the response tends to be, “the sentence was too harsh.”

    I continue to hold out hope for the Senate;once (if) the Harper appointees realize that now that they are appointed they are actually charged with doing what’s right for Canada, as opposed to what’s right for Harper,and that Harper can’t do anything about that, it’s still possible that our values will be upheld instead of trampled.

    • himelfarb says:

      Great to hear from you Brad. If the Senate has any purpose it is to try to stop such egregious, harmful legislation. In any case, whatever the Senate does, the fight ought to continue.

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