Canada’s War on Crime

Anything but benign

With the parliamentary session coming to a close and summer getting ready to obliterate any residual interest in politics, this is pretty much our last chance before the fall to have a serious look at where our government proposes to take us over the next four years. We have seen the Speech From the Throne (SFT) and the first budget, and with few exceptions, it is all pretty much what we expected. The media have generally described the SFT and budget as workmanlike, safe, “ho-hum”. It is, the argument goes, no more nor less than what we were promised and pretty much what about 40 percent of us voted for: continued tax reductions, smaller government, and a focus on crime and security. Nothing to get worked up over, no risky or costly national projects, no meddling with cherished national programs such as medicare.

Opposition politicians are having trouble figuring out just how to push back: all the parties want to be and be seen as fiscally prudent; nobody is about to argue for big government or tax increases, except on the margins for corporate tax increases; and nobody will risk being seen as soft on crime.

In fact, the government’s unprecedented decision to forego debate on its SFT, breaking a tradition that dates back to before Confederation, got barely a whisper of attention. Budget bills were rushed through committee. Even the government’s fiercest critics seem more worried about what might be in store over the coming four years of Canada’s first majority Conservative government than they are about the proposals now before us.

But what is before us now is anything but benign. While the rest of government shrinks, our crime control and security establishment grows and with this so too do the authority and reach of government. In an agenda that promises less government interference in our private decisions we get government that is more present and intrusive than ever. All governments must attend to issues of security and every government has worked to prevent crime and reduce its economic and human costs, but never before has crime had the central place that it now holds. It was the issue that ate up the majority of the time of our parliamentarians before the election and the omnibus crime bill signals more of the same. Crime and punishment have become a – or, perhaps, the – defining issue of our government, and the tone — the unrelenting focus on punishment, expanding prison and police powers — represents a profound break from policies of all previous Canadian governments.

Another war we don’t need

The approach and many of its specific measures seem to draw their inspiration from the “war on crime” launched in the U.S. some four decades ago – just after the “war on poverty” but with much more enduring commitment. If that is the case, if that is the path we propose to follow, then what is happening here is about much more than crime and security. It is about our view of society, of human nature, of the future, and of the role of the state in shaping that future. It signals a new relationship between Canadians and their government. And before we go too far along that path, we ought to have a close look at what that view of the world looks like and what the consequences of its pursuit are for our safety, our society, and our democracy.

Of course there will be many who, against all the evidence and all the experts, say, hold on there, this government is simply responding to a real problem – rising crime, violence and threats to our security – and high time. Some will point to stories of horrible victimization, and suffering to which none of us is immune, and others will remind us of the Vancouver riots or other incidents that inevitably shake and confuse us. The human and financial costs of crime are profoundly real and deserve government attention always. But our approach ought to be guided by the best available evidence.

When the U.S. launched its war on crime, crime and violence were in fact on the rise, assassinations and riots were shaking American confidence, and more and more pundits were talking about a culture of violence. Some response was necessary. But even there and then, the decision to make crime an organizing theme and to focus on punishment was a political decision. Crime and violence were on the rise in Canada too and Canadian politicians of all stripes opted for a more balanced approach even in the face of public pressure, as we are inevitably influenced by what is going on to the south. Nobody would accuse Margaret Thatcher of being soft on anything, but she too resisted pressures to expand incarceration. Why? Because it’s too expensive and it doesn’t work.

It is even tougher to understand the current Canadian approach as it comes at a time when crime and its severity have been declining, year after year. While inevitably short of unanimity, there is a remarkable consensus among the experts. They would pretty much agree that we should continue to adjust our punishments, improve our interventions, learn from our mistakes, but that, on the whole, we are doing pretty well, there is no crime crisis and, most important, punitive approaches will just make things worse. So what is the war really all about?

The American model: from welfare to warfare

If we look at what happened in the U.S., a strong case can be made that this was part of the shift away from the elements of welfare state introduced through the “New Deal” and expanded through Johnson’s “Just Society”. Conservatives had long fought these welfare initiatives arguing that they contributed to moral laxity, sloth and dependency, and even crime. With growing public insecurity and pessimism about the future and declining trust in government, this view or some variant has been on the ascendancy. The war on crime offered an alternative basis for government authority: instead of promises of shared opportunity or social justice, a term now uttered by only wild-eyed lefties, instead of protection from the ravages of economic change and deteriorating environment, government offered something new. This new compact promised protection from bad things and bad people, from external threats to security and internal threats to safety, but more than this, it offered moral clarity and shared outrage. It may not not deliver on the protection but it certainly delivers on the outrage.

This change in tone is evident in the words of then President Nixon whose omnibus “safe streets” bill is often seen as the first strike in the war on crime. “Americans in the last decade,” he said, “were often told that the criminal was not responsible for his crimes against society, but that society was responsible. I totally disagree with this permissive philosophy.” That “last decade” was the sixties when criminal justice was guided by three imperatives: just punishment certainly, but also the collective interest in public safety, and the collective responsibility to reintegrate offenders into society. Punishment, rehabilitation and prevention – in some mix – was the old way. The new way, based on pessimism about the future and about people’s ability to change, emphasized individual responsibility over collective responsibility, punishment over prevention and rehabilitation, and order and control over individual freedom and civil liberties.

One of the most comprehensive assessments of the decades-long war that followed is Jonathan Simon’s Governing Through Crime, a devastating critique of American policy and, for us, perhaps a cautionary tale. Simon tells us that the policy not only drew on the fears of Americans, fears about crime, fears about the future, fears of “the other”, it validated and nurtured those fears. And, in so doing, created a self-perpetuating machine. Tough could never be tough enough. It wasn’t enough to take away an offender’s freedom, hard time had to become harder and longer. Any new incident, every grizzly crime begged for more intense punishment, more people in jail for longer. When crime continued to rise, that called for more of the same, redouble the punishments, build more prisons. That’s how policies that just about nobody believes make any sense – three strikes and you’re out, for example – become law. A self-perpetuating machine.

And the outcome of all this? According to Simon, this approach created a cycle of fear that has reshaped American life. Fear matters. It diminishes our quality of life, eats away at our freedom, and turns us away from others. It makes trust more difficult and without trust, even minimal solidarity becomes impossible. The gated community patrolled by private police has become the symbol, the architectural manifestation of fear, division and inequality.

A politics of fear

And it seems that here too fear of crime is high and rising especially among my generation of Canadians. What we know about crime is rarely based on systematic review of data. That’s not our job. We don’t have the time or training. What we know is drawn from our direct experience and from what we hear in the media and from our leaders. Little wonder that most of us believe that crime and violence are on the rise. That is what we naturally make of the media accounts, the endlessly repeated images and stories of the most horrible crimes, however rare, that stay in our minds and shape our perceptions. Even more important, what else are we to conclude when governments make crime the number one priority and continually remind us to be angry and afraid.

The traditional balanced approach to crime allowed our political leaders to take crime and fear seriously without feeding those fears. For decades criminologists and practitioners have tried to counter the myths about crime and punishment but this now seems a losing battle. Simply, fear trumps evidence. We are all more likely to hear, believe and remember information that confirms our biases. In her 1997 study of public opinion and perceptions of crime in the U.S., Katherine Beckett showed that fear of crime did not lead public policy, it was the other way around. Tough on criminals policy creates the perception that rising crime is a serious problem, that we ought to be afraid. And the inevitably escalating government action simply continues to feed those fears. Breaking the cycle is very hard. California’s current governor tried to pass bizarre legislation tying prison spending to education spending as something of an admission that he was helpless to do anything about the shift of scarce resources from health, education and welfare to prisons. His frustration is understandable – California spends 45% more on prisons than on higher education. This is not a path we want to follow.

And did the approach reduce crime and improve safety? A number of states are now proposing to modify or undo policies we are preparing to introduce, policies like mandatory minimum sentences, because they were seen to make things worse. Republican and Democratic voices are growing louder that the war language and approach are counter-productive. Asa Hutchinson, U.S. congressman, crime hawk, and former head of the U.S. drug enforcement agency, is now saying that we in Canada should avoid their mistakes, singling out often unfair mandatory minimum sentences and insufficient investment in preparing prisoners for reintegration. World leaders and increasing numbers of practitioners, judges and police, are asking for an end to the expensive war on drugs that has funded the expansion of organized crime, terrorism and exploitation but has done nothing to reduce drug use, crime or violence. Vincente Fox, former president of Mexico, now tells Time that he had it exactly wrong when he launched his war on drugs, which resulted only in greater violence and suffering.

This relentless war on crime has resulted not in safety but in mass imprisonment where warehousing and control replace rehabilitation and education. Prison inherits the consequences of our inattention to inequality and social injustice. Low level users, generally the poor, often the troubled, and always a racially skewed population, fill the prisons and become a permanent under-class. Sickness and suicide become the norm. Offenders leave worse off than when they arrived, creating ever greater risk to the public. In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Supreme Court recently stepped in and ordered thousands released from California prisons no longer able to contain the numbers of prisoners the war produced. Conditions are shocking, said the Court, who pointed to Canada’s balanced approach as a model of safety and human rights. Asa Hutchinson is right. We ought to learn from the experience of our neighbours. We ought also to learn from our own past successes.

The Challenge

Canada is not so deeply into this cycle of fear that we cannot avoid its worse excesses. Let’s be clear. Our system has always been pretty tough. We have consistently used prison more and had longer sentences than our European counterparts, and our sentencing laws have always tried to fit the punishment to the crime. But we have also always asked how best to administer punishment so that rehabilitation and the eventual reintegration of offenders are most likely. We all know that there are some types of crime where we do not have much success, but overall the success rate has been good and getting better. We have documented stories of lives turned around, here, for example, and here. Rehabilitation and reintegration – and increasingly restorative justice – are not about coddling; they are about the need to complement just punishment with a commitment to public safety and human rights.

Every war brings collateral damage and the casualties of this war are many. What we get is a more powerful, authoritarian and intrusive state, a more fearful and fragmented society, and a profound erosion of our freedom and the deepening of inequality. The issues are too big to pass in silence. Our political leaders may not want this debate so let us take up the challenge and insist that, when Parliament returns, our representatives scrutinize the omnibus bill with more rigour than they gave the government’s agenda this spring .

(edited for clarity)

45 Responses to “Canada’s War on Crime”
  1. Michal Hasek says:

    You are a lone voice in the forest and if there is anything this wide eyed lefty, who still believes in rehabilitation and the goodness of man, can do to amplify it, I am with you Alex. More prisons and police is not the answer. Access to education and mental health resources is the answer as is the decriminalization of drug use. Thanks Mr. H.

    • himelfarb says:

      As always, thanks Michal.

      • Graham Stewart says:

        Alex: You are dead on and not alone. Surely there is nothing a cynical as a government that un-dermines its own communities through the fabrication and exaggeration of fear while promis-ing that it is only they who can protect us from that fear. It is not as though federal politicians don’t have access to the facts. So I have to believe that a government that lies and threatens cannot last forever, even though it feels that way.
        We can’t afford to be silenced by the sheer force displayed by this government. That is the technique of bullies and we just can’t afford to be bullied.

      • himelfarb says:

        Hey Graham, I hope you noticed that I used your suggestion about success stories and you might let Brad know that I used the link he provided.

  2. Beijing York says:

    I disagree Michal. There are more than your two voices advocating a just, reasoned and compassionate society. Unfortunately, our voices have little access to mainstream media. Luckily there is the internet and thoughtful opinion makers trying their best to offer an alternative vision of what makes a healthy society, economy and government.

    The war on crime policies of the US have been proven failures as well documented in this piece. But the current government is led by an ideology that is punishment oriented. Whether it’s punishing the perpetrators of “unreported” crime or workers trying to hold on to earned benefits and employment protections, Harper’s approach to almost every issue is to use a sledge hammer and demonstrate his authority.

    Despite the many positive studies or stakeholder testimonies presented to the government, they still went ahead and canceled the successful prison farms program. Despite the many professionals who provide scientific proof that our crime rates have been on the decline for over a decade, they still made crime and punishment a plank of their election platform. This government has mastered the art of using emotional ploys over fact-based decision-making to rule. And far too often, the opposition parties have responded first and foremost to Harper’s fear tactics.

    I was shocked that there was no committee review, no discussion, nothing to unveil what the details of the government’s priorities and budgeting are. That in my view was very irresponsible of the opposition. It’s bad enough that the media has become indifferent or lazy or complicit in keeping Canadians in the dark. Luckily, the NDP is finally acting like an opposition party by debating the draconian “back to work” legislation and bringing up solid points in defence of CUPW workers. Hopefully it will embolden them to make the most of their parliamentary status and really dig in deep in examining and debating the omnibus crime bill in the fall session.

  3. Joseph says:

    I think that this is an excellent piece. Your research and logic are very much in line with my own. Except for one thing, perhaps… I may have recently moved from cynic to misanthrope, but it seems to me that the very things you accuse this government as causing as a byproduct are in fact the goals of the policy. The “more powerful, authoritarian and intrusive state, a more fearful and fragmented society, and a profound erosion of our freedom and the deepening of inequality” are not some result accepted reluctantly in the face of a brave battle against ‘anarchy and crime’, but are the GOALS of the War on Crime.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks for this Joseph. I noticed that you made a similar comment on Jamie’s wall. I think the difference in view is at least in part a matter of emphasis, tone and style. But I must confess that those closest to me are often irritated by my incapacity to sustain cynicism, an incapacity inappropriate and unbecoming in a man my age.

  4. Have you folks seen this article, where a senior judge talks about how jail sentences simply do not work in terms of addressing crime?

    “If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, well this is a pretty insane way of going about it,” Vertes told CBC News… “Anybody who thinks that just sending more people away for longer periods of time in prison will solve the social problems that lead to most of our crime is deluding themselves.”

  5. Mark Hammer says:

    Let’s make a distinction between distal/contextual, and proximal or acute causes of crime. I think much of the recent historical debate on approaches to crime and justice get confused in how they treat each general set or family of causes.

    On the one side, more staunchly social conservative views see any appeal to distal or contextual causes of crime as a form of excusing such deviant behaviour, and being “soft” on crime. On the other side, more socially progressive or small-l liberal views on crime see discounting of the distal/contextual factors as unrealistic, devoid of compassion, and, at their worst, social Darwinism and elitist, if not sometimes racist, in nature.

    Where I think they stumble is in their misunderstanding of how those causes are to be practically applied by those making policy or simply rendering judgment about those who commit crime. There is such a thing as a “career criminal”, but many people who become “criminals” likely do not expect to be criminals 5 minutes before the crime is committed. Such is the frail nature of human impulse control. One minute you’re on this side of the law, and the next you’re past the point of return. I think we are largely correct in attributing many criminal acts to personal failings. I think we are correct in expecting individual accountability.

    But at the same time, overattributing crime to personal failings and weakness of character interferes with our capacity to take effective preventative action in reducing the overall population incidence of those failings, as well as creating effective rehabilitation infrastructures. Acknowledging social influences on the likelihood of engaging in criminal activity is not an *excuse* for crime and *individual* criminal acts, it is an insight for *reducing* crime in the future. At the same time, such insight does not have to reduce the degree of personal responsibility peole have for their actions, and need to have if any crime reduction is to be sustainable. The two perspectives CAN dwell under the same roof, but you have to be clear in your mind about where you are applying each category of information and group of causes.

    In some respects, the battle of perspectives on crime stems from debates about free will versus determinism. Tough-on-crime types presume free will, which is why they treat crime as a character failing. “Bleeding-heart liberals” presume determinism, which is why they tend to cleave towards excusing crime. But you don’t have to be one or the other. I am reminded of a talk given by one of my heroes, godfather of Canadian psychology Donald Hebb, at the American Psychological Association in 1974 in Montreal. In his inimitable wry way, Hebb told a packed hall “Of course I am a product of my genetic heritage, and my environment, and learning history. But when I come into work, and I know I should be writing, and my secretary tells me I should be writing, and I DON’T write, *that’s* free will.”

    Hebb saw his behaviour as highly multi-determined, by a vast continuum of causes, proximal and distal. That one might acknowledge distal causes did not invalidate proximal ones, and vice versa. They can coexist, and neither view HAS to be threatened by the other. And as I suggest here, tough and soft stances would seem to be a product of how you apply what you know or believe of various subsets of those causes.

    Fundamentally, what we need and want, as a society, is less crime. Some see that goal as achievable through vengeance and punishment. Others see it as achievable through compassion. I doubt either of those strategies, alone, will accomplish that overarching goal.

    What I think is true, however, is that you can’t instigate patient nonvindictive behaviour within the context of an unjust society. One of the things I study in my capacity as government analyst is research on organizational justice, and one of the burgeoning areas in that field is closer examination of how perceived injustice predicts deliberate criminal and/or spiteful actions by employees, whether it be theft, or sabotage. Some of the demonstrations are very striking and compelling (see Jerald Greenberg’s 1990 paper: “Employee Theft as a Reaction to Underpayment Inequity: The Hidden Cost of Pay Cuts.” as a particularly striking illustration). And in the case of workplace violence, such actions frequently follow prolonged perceived unjust treatment. Given your former role as Clerk, you might be intrigued to know there is a research literature on the psychology of tax evasion, and at least one study I’ve seen notes that people who believe their taxes are not used or levied fairly by their government are more likely to claim false or inadmissible deductions on their taxes.

    So when we come down hard on crime, it can’t be in a way that creates a pervasive sense of injustice or we simply spend money, sweat and tears to *sustain* crime. We can raise a minimum sentence from, say, 4 to 6 or even 8 years, but that person will eventually be released. And when they emerge, they not only have to have more social skills (and hopefully legitimate job skills) than when they entered, but must be convinced of the fairness of their treatment, and the fairness of the society they emerge into. To do otherwise, in the exclusive attention to proximal causes and “character failings”, simply makes things worse.

    • Mark, I really appreciate your setting out the two approaches to crime, and especially your point that the two can – and should – coexist. Very useful to me in my own work.

      • himelfarb says:

        Yes, useful but I remain concerned that we not divide the world up into bad people and good people, people with character flaws who become criminal and flawless people like us who do not. There are of course some at the extremes who stand apart but the low level drug user, the white collar criminal, the dealer, the youth offender, the career criminal, the drunk driver, the mentally ill offender or those who violated laws we don’t even know are on the books – from failure to register a firearm to skiing at night – defy ready explanation. Crime is too big and diverse a category to talk confidently about categories of causes. Proximate and contextual causes are different of course but count me one who resists mechanistic causal frames. We do know that societies that promote early childhood development, constrain the worst excesses of inequality, provide universal access to health and education have less crime than societies that do not. And we know that criminal justice systems that use the criminal law sparingly, focus on prevention, tailor rehabilitation to the individual, structure release and provide transition homes and assistance, and the like have the best outcomes.

    • sunsin says:

      More simply, conservatism depends on eliminating the distinction between an explanation of crime, and an excuse for crime. All that explain are accused of excusing.

      I’ve found the best way to deal with this is head on: tell the accuser that failing to study the causes of crime promotes more crime. Those who have no time for explanations are the accomplices of the criminal.

      • himelfarb says:

        Agreed but this issue makes people mad and madness is not conducive to explanations. The agenda is more about sharing that anger, sharing outrage, than about achieving ome instrumental goal such as safety.

  6. Himelfarb says:

    Great to hear from you Mark and I did follow through on your reference to “hermeneutic availability” and kind of smuggled it into the post. As for your extensive and valuable comment here, while I agree with the thrust I am always uncomfortable with talking “causality” with complex behaviour that is socially and legally constructed. You want to reduce crime easily? Reduce the number of behaviours covered by the criminal law. We have too many crimes and use this most intrusive instrument too much. Surely we ought to be thinking differently about consensual crimes and crimes against persons.
    I note too how rarely we yalk about white collar crime, abuses of trust and authority. Our focus is always street crimes rather than suite crimes and that too should tell us something.
    Beyond this, it is probably not very useful to treat the antecedents of crime are causal in a mechanistic way. First of all, two people committing the same act are not equally likely to be apprehended and convicted as criminals. Second, opportunities for both prosocial and antisocial behaviour are unevenly distributed. ( My kids wouldn’t know where to buy an illegal weapon.) Third, motivations change over time and how the state intervenes can shape those motivations. Here you might want to have a look at the work of David Matza who describes how young people “drift” into crime, and how the justice system can help them or push them further down that road.
    Of course there are people with severe disorders and some frightening few who defy all understanding, but the vast majority did not become criminal all at once, and that goes for the career criminal too. There are probably about as many causes (biographies) as “criminals” – but we do know some things – the more stake people have in their community and society, the less likely they are to drift into crime. and when they do the state’s treatment of them becomes extremely important. As Robert Merton wrote if the legitimate means of success are closed off to people, we shouldn’t be surprised that they often “innovate” (his term) and that might include creating illicit means to success. Some got rich this way and others got caught.
    None of this is to say that people shouldn’t take responsibility for their actions nor that collectively we shouldn’t punish those who violate our most fundamental values. But when we do this we should have an eye to what would work to improve our safety and what our collective responsibility might be as well. And we should limit the use of the criminal law to those core shared values.

    • Mark Hammer says:

      I think you got to the heart of the matter more efficiently than I did. (and I *did* note the allusion to “availabilty”. You learn quickly!)

      I hadn’t intended to convey a mechanistic view of crime, so thanks for catching that, and correcting it. People who make mistakes, whether minor, medium, or very large, can also do good things and avoid mistakes (and the presumption of “penitance” and “corrections” is that people CAN turn around). And people who generally do good things can also make mistakes. And people flip back and forth over their lives and situations. There is no clear line dividing the good from the bad, and those propelled along a trajectory can always swerve towards or away in spite of that trajectory.

      I tend to adopt a connectionist view of morality, viewing the behaviour itself as the outcome of the linkages in our knowledge base and the information that gets activated first/earlier, when confronted with ethical decisions, or decisions that might involve determining whether one’s own behaviour is deviant or not. The difference between the person who stay on the better side of that fuzzy line, and the person who wanders to the other side, is the difference between the person who automatically thinks “Hmmmm, somebody has lost this”, when finding a 50 dollar bill on the ground, and the person who first thinks “Hey, fifty bucks!!” and may only think about someone losing it some time later in the sequence of events (by which time they may have committed to a self-serving course of action). That is, empathy enters into those situational cognitions just a wee bit faster for some than for others (and a wee bit slower is not the same thing as not considering such information at all). We tend to forget how quickly such decisions are made, and how much information there is to integrate. A great deal of what lands people in trouble with the law happens at the speed of determning whether that amber light is “fresh” enough to drive through, or whether there is a red light, only milliseconds away, given your speed.

      If that IS the very basis of moral and criminal behaviour, then clearly anything that can shuffle that knowledge deck such that people are given to thinking *first* (i.e., within that first 300msec) about those aspects of the situation or choice that lead to pro-social behaviour, has got to be a good thing, right?

      You note that “the more stake people have in their community and society, the less likely they are to drift into crime”. And while it might appear “bleeding heart” to some, I will note that literacy skills are generally much lower in the prison population than in the broader population. I’m obviously not going to connect crime and literacy directly, but it bears noting that literacy is a vital part and vehicle of that “stake”. It is a portal into larger society and civility.

      Neighbourhoods, stable ones, are also a vehicle for having a stake in society. We all too often think that a place in a neighbourhood is something that has to be earned, but forget that the disrupted life of broken homes and constant movement – the unsettled life – counter-prepares one for entering the world of stable neighbourhoods, for even being able to see value in it. And I’m not talking about affluence vs poverty. I’m talking about the difference between feeling like one knows those, and that, around you enough to feel a sense of community, vs the pervasive sense that one is merely swimming, disconnectedly, through an unending mall of strangers and momentary curiosities. Small wonder that, for some, incarceration may provide the strongest sense of community they’ve had in some time…albeit with perhaps the wrong community.

      • Himelfarb says:

        Mark, what a terrific and insightful addition to the discussion. You have made me wonder how much our culture of cynicism, dominated by an economic model of human behaviour, has made those small acts of selfishness more likely. If we are treated as self-interested and materialist surely that has some impact on who we become. Your discussion of neighbourhood also provides a perspective on the unanticipated consequences of homelessness. What kind of stake in community could you possibly have if you don’t have an address. Thanks very much Mark for pushing the conversation.

  7. Satya Brink says:

    And still the long gun registry will go…

  8. Catherine Latimer says:

    Alex: Thank you for another great post and shedding some light on what is behind the war on crime. Those who comment also bring a lot of thought and insight to the subject and I am glad they took the time to share them. It seems to me that we face two distinct challenges in dealing with the war on crime: dealing with the individuls who may be collateral damage in this war; and dealing with the criminal and correctional policies and law reform that seem to be increaslingly based on public fear rather than evidence of fairness or effectiveness.
    With respect to dealing with individuals, there are some promising and effective approaches that reduce crime and promote safer communities. Crime prevention efforts are becoming more evidence-based and more effective thanks to many dedicated people who are working in partnership and thanks also to the National Crime Prevention Centre. Much more can and should be done. Once a crime has been committed, individuals need to be held accountable through measures that are proportionate to the seriousness of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender. If the penalty is harsher or more punitive than the offence warrants, it is unfair, will cause resentment, and will certainly not promote public safety over the long run. Constructive repayment of the penalty, particularly through community-based sentences rather than through custodial sentences, supports the rehabilitation of the individual and generally is much less costly. Tailored sentences for those with addictions, cognitive impairments like FASD, mental health issues, and poverty-related challenges like homelessness have proven successful in assisting individuals to carry out their sentences without attracting additional offences for breaching conditions. Rehabilitation and reintegration support are also key to reducing crime and making our communities safer. Since joining the John Howard Society two months ago, I have been amazed by the dedication of board members, volunteers, staff, and partners who work so tirelessly and with such conviction to support the courageous individuals who want to change. It is truly inspiring, it results in positive change, and, perhaps if we shared more with the members of our communities, it would help to overcome the fear.
    Fear takes us to the second challenge — how do we take on effectively the criminal and correctional policies and legislative reforms that are premised on fear and not on principle, evidence, or sound economic or social policy? Perhaps identifying the role of fear, as you have done so well in your blog, is the first step in developing strategies to overcome its influence and take us toward fair, effective, and humane approaches to crime. There would be too many casualties in this war continued. Civilian protests have stopped wars before and I hope we are able to do it again.

    Catherine Latimer,
    John Howard Society of Canada

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Catherine. I hope so too. You’re reminder of the effectiveness of tailored sentences is particularly apt given that what is proposed would reduce judges’ ability to do this. No ‘one size fits all” ever works in social policy – and not in sentencing either. And your reminder of the courageous and dedicated people who work and volunteer in the correctional system is also right on – and who better to inform our policies than those who work most closely with offenders. They have seen and contributed to the concrete instances of people in trouble who turned around their lives. I am sure that the critics would modify their views with better information about what positive things are happening – and the horror stories when we give up on people.

    • Beijing York says:

      Catherine, thanks for an excellent response. This passage reminded me of the tragic case of Ashley Smith:

      Once a crime has been committed, individuals need to be held accountable through measures that are proportionate to the seriousness of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender. If the penalty is harsher or more punitive than the offence warrants, it is unfair, will cause resentment, and will certainly not promote public safety over the long run. Constructive repayment of the penalty, particularly through community-based sentences rather than through custodial sentences, supports the rehabilitation of the individual and generally is much less costly.

      I still shudder in anger when I think of her young death and unfair incarceration.

      From the Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse:

      By the time she was in her early teens, it was clear that the relationship between Ashley Smith and authority would be a rocky one.

      Growing up in Moncton, she was busted for throwing crab apples at a postal worker. Her odyssey through the Canadian prison system began in 2003, when she was just 15 years old – a judge handed down a six-year sentence for a grab-bag of accumulated criminal offences that included uttering threats, assault with a weapon, assaulting a peace officer, and possession of a prohibited weapon.

      A six year penalty for a 15 year old child seems severe to me, even if it included some assault charges (I don’t believe any of them caused bodily harm). Flags should have gone up when this judgment was passed. Her parents were poorly advised and told she would receive good professional care that would address her unruly behaviour.

      What is sadder is that the public tone has changed so much in recent years. Letters to the editor (Winnipeg Free Press) decry the light sentencing of young offenders and/or the mentally ill. There is a push to lift a variety of youth protections from the Young Offenders Act including identifying the accused. It is so disheartening.

      • sunsin says:

        Are you really sure that there has been a change in letters to the editor on these topics? This is something that might deserve further study. I seem to remember that the bloody-minded hang’em’high type of letter has always been the norm, usually written by some dweeb who’d faint if he had to kill a mouse caught in a trap.

      • himelfarb says:

        My understanding is that polling shows a hardening of attitudes on crime and punishment that goes beyond the dweeb population.

  9. Brad says:

    Another excellent post with continuing informed and insightful comments. Thank you Alex. While I do not disagree with the hypothesis that at least some elements of the mass media have been manipulated by a government that the evidence clearly indicates is fostering fear in the general public to justify the imposition of more and harsher laws and the continual and accelerating erosion of our human rights, at the same time there have been very few days go by since the election of the Harper majority that there hasn’t been an editorial or op-ed in at least one of the major dailies (the Sun chain excepted) decrying the omnibus crime Bill, calling for legalization and regulation of drugs, or criticizing the ideologically rather than evidence based approach to addressing crime.

    The most recent issue of Alberta Views magazine for example, is almost wholly devoted to this issue, though admittedly, that’s a pretty small readership, especially outside of Alberta.

    Interesting though, notwithstanding the perception of most Canadians that Alberta is “Texas North” in more ways than one, including response to crime, the Alberta Government has in many respects been light years ahead of the rest of Canada when it comes to policy initiatives that focus on crime prevention in ways other than punitive.

    In particular, Alberta has been promoting Restorative Justice activities for a number of years, and these activities continue to grow. And while there is certainly room for debate around whether the principles and practices of Restorative Justice are incompatible with the principles of due process, the evidence is overwhelming that it is a process that is far less costly than the adversarial trial and punishment approach, victims, community, and offenders all feel that justice is far more likely achieved through the process, and now the evidence is starting to accumulate demonstrating that the recidivism rate is considerably less when Restorative Justice is used to respond to criminal behaviour.

    Why does Restorative Justice work so well? Why is the (for example) Edmonton Drug Treatment and Community Restoration Court far and away the most successful in North America? How are John Howard and Elizabeth Fry Societies able to effect astonishing transformations in “hardened criminals”?

    I am struck time and again when listening to those who have gone through these transformations talk about what sparked the change – it’s always the same, “For the first time in my life someone actually cared about me!”

    As long as we are divided into “us” and “them”, the “good guys” and the “bad guys”, that caring for one another cannot happen. The ideological foundation of neo-liberalism/neo-conservativism (they’re the same thing) is that “it’s all about me”.

    Interestingly, that same attitude is held by virtually all offenders.And that suggests that there may well be considerably more merit to the conflict criminological theories (as opposed to consensus theories) than most main-stream criminologists acknowledge.

    To purport to “have the answer” is folly; responding effectively to crime is not rocket science – it’s far more complex and nuanced than rocket science. But there is overwhelming evidence that some polices are far more effective in reducing crime than others.

    The Canadian tragedy, as you so rightly point out Alex, is that the Harper government is demonstrating that it clearly favours those policies that are proven least effective (indeed are proven to increase crime) and the inevitable outcomes will be more crime and more and more government control and intrusion into our lives.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Brad and for the very powerful link you sent which I used in this post. I agree with you regarding the media. There have been many good articles by editorialists such as Dan Gardner and Jeff Simpson as well as balanced and informed news articles that I link to here and in the previous post vas well. I was referring to the inevitable crime reporting that makes us believe that crime is everywhere. Just think of the image of the burning car during the G20 in Toronto, an image shown over and over again, and how that may have shaped public reaction. I am not suggesting anything deliberate here, just that the way reporting works may lead to exaggerated views of the threat (to say nothing of the impact of Sun reporting and morning talk radio.).I also found really interesting your insight that the neoliberal (or neoconservative) view of humans validates the very kind of self-seeking behavior that leads to criminality. Now that is a particularly ugly irony. And yes I believe it is worth repeating that Progressive Conservative Alberta governments have not gone the route of the war on crime. Restorative justice works and strengthens community and the notion of mutuality – mutual aid and responsibility – essential to healthy community. Thamks for helping to advance the conversation and of course for the work you do, Brad.

  10. Mark Hammer says:

    In the grand scheme of things, crime is the result of those committing deviant behaviour not buying in to the rules laid out for them by the remainder of society. I agree with your position that “crime” is also what you make it, and one needs to recognize that expanding the boundaries of what gets *called* crime, or what gets legally and/or culturally shifted from the category of benign to serious crime, also determines how much “crime” there is in a society. But, even assuming that the boundaries are constant, the individual still has to accept that whatever sits inside and outside those boundaries is properly placed there.

    Psychologists might suggest that criminal behaviour is a result of an individual not “internalizing” the rules for socially acceptable and moral behaviour. As long as the rules are someone else’s and not that individual’s, there is the risk of deviant behaviour. Casting back to my “connectionist” approach pitched earlier, it’s like the difference between “thinking” in a second language, and mentally translating from that second language to first. If the rule is internalized, it’s what you think of immediately, and if it isn’t internalized, you get around to it when you get around to it.

    Deci and Ryan’s “self-determination theory” ( ) would suggest that one is more motivated to pursue those objectives that feel like they “come from you”.

    If you have a chance, take a few moments to chat with Joan Grusec in the psych dept at U of T (St. George Campus). Joan is a respected social development specialist, who has written widely on the topic of children’s moral development and the role of parental strategies in guiding that development. I find the model she and Jacqie Goodnow proposed in 1994 to be extremely powerful in not only classifying and describing the impact of various parental strategies on getting children to behave in more pro-social and compliant ways, but also in suggesting approaches to mch broader effective social engineering of prosocial behaviour, “personal investment” in citizenhood, and crime reduction. Indeed, I find it an appropriate model for understanding public buy-in (or resistance) to policies involving “difficult choices”.

    Fundamental to the model is the manner in which parents can get the child to believe a rule or practice is pretty much what they would have generated themselves. Merges wonderfully with Deci & Ryan’s approach.

    Both highly recommended, and too often highly neglected by those who profess interest in crime reduction.

    • himelfarb says:

      Mark, thanks for the references – will pursue – sounds like a strong case for democratic renewal

    • Brad says:

      As Mark’s learned additions to this conversation so amply demonstrate, this is far more complex and nuanced than rocket science. Rocket science is basically calculus applied to gravitational effects; until a Hari Seldon comes along and develops a calculus that predicts human behaviour based on historical/genetic/physical/psychological/sociological factors, we’re kind of just winging it.

      But there are some things, as I said earlier that, all other things being equal, have proven effective. Restorative Justice is certainly one; early childhood programs are another (the Perry Preschool Project for example); social workers and public health nurses working with young, single, unwed mothers is another: engaging children and youth in meaningful activities that uplift and encourage is another; and of course caring for one another.

      Yes, those suffering from FASD or other mental illness have to be worked with and supported in different ways; and yes, those suffering from trauma and addictions have to worked with and supported in different ways

      But the key elements are “helped and supported”.

      Implicit in the “tough on crime” agenda is that those who are in these conditions are there because of their choosing to be there. That is, quite simply, a false assumption.

      What child chooses to be physically, sexually, or emotionally abused? What child in vitrio chooses a life with the scourge of FASD? Or bipolar disorder? Or Schizophrenia? Or chronic depression?

      And how do we as a society decide to “deal” with these children as they move into adolescence and adulthood?

      I strongly recommend that if you haven’t already done so, you read “The Land of Hungry Ghosts” by Dr. Gabor Mate, and “Justice Behind the Walls” by Prof. Micheal Jackson.

      “Justice”, at its most basic, is about everyone getting what they deserve; is it to be based on a single incident, a series of incidents, a life-style, or a human history?

      And what about the social structures? Do we simply ignore the fact that a society based on “me and only me” is inherently criminogenic?

      For me, these questions are rhetorical – the answers are obvious, and irrefutable in both science and logic.

      • himelfarb says:

        Thanks Brad and in will certainly followvup with thevreferenes. As you point out, we all recognize that people have to accept responsibility for their actions and the consequences of their actions but if we lose sight of our responsibilities to each other we get a meaner, more dangerous society.

  11. kali111 says:

    Good morning Alex/Frum. Thanks for sending along your Blog on crime. Just the phrase “War on Crime” like the “War on Drugs” that has been going on for so many years sends fear into the minds of law abiding citizens. Call it something else but I guess, as you say, that would take away the Fear in people’s mind and that would lose the intent of the “Get Tough on Crime Bill”
    It is always refreshing to read articles like this especially coming from people who get it right and had it right all along. People want to live in a society where they can feel safe and secure. Take that away, then in a lot of instance people take justice into their own hands, just like the American way and their right to bear arms. Could that that be the next bill to be drafted and presented by a sitting MP? The present crime bill along with the media exposure, as you mentioned, indeed puts fear in the minds of people who now think that crime is running rampant. I totally agree that building more prisons does not make sense. Yes there are those who are habitual criminals who will never be reformed to a point they can be released back into society for example the Clifford Olson’s, and the Robert Picton’s of society. Hopefully they are being studied to see why they would do such cruel harm to a human being.
    The words Restorative Justice, Rehabilitation and being Proactive (problem solving) seem to be not part of the everyday vocabulary of those who want to push this bill through parliament. As you mention there are many people sitting in detention centers, provincial correctional centers, minimal security prisons who are only there until their time is served and then released back into society. During that period of time, while in custody, many upon being released will, at some time, will re-offend as they have no employment to go to, they have low self esteem, or family members will not take them back. I can recall during my seven years in Yorkton, Sask. (1978 -1985) many of the aboriginal males who lived on reserves in the surrounding area would often come into Yorkton, (a city of 16,000 people) during the latter part of the fall and do a rash of break and enters into residences or businesses. Once apprehended they would say the reason they did the break-ins was to get caught and then they would go to jail where they would have a bed, be in a warm place and get three meals a day. I would guess that same scenario still happens today. So why is government along with other partner agencies not being proactive to prevent this from happening? The cost to keep and individual in lockups is huge. Take those dollars and look at ways to prevent or at least reduce crime from happening.
    Where does it start? In many communities, large or small across Canada, the police and many other partner agencies (municipal, provincial and federal) in the community where crime, of any nature is high, must work together to implement programs with qualified people to prevent the above scenarios from happening? One cannot forget the role of the family as well. In most instances in Yorkton, which is surrounded by smaller communities like Kamsack, Pelly, Canora and Norquay the youth are brought up by the grandparents. It is not only the Aboriginals, as all other races are subject to the same circumstances.
    The education system has to look at ways of keeping young people in school. Just because an individual is not good academically in their early school years does not mean they are not good people. In a lot of instances they will drop out of school at a very young age Trades people like plumbers, electricians, carpenters and mechanics today, are in high demand and earn a very respectable wage that contribute to the economy. Having training programs and resource persons in schools to assist those who are trades orientated would help those who want to continue on with their studies and complete their schooling. Most important they feel good about themselves. And that is what is important.

    When the RCMP embraced Community Policing as its Service Delivery Model in 1993, how many in the organization really knew what Community Policing was really about? The good ones did and had been doing it since the March West in 1873. One only has to look at the life of Sam Steele and his work with the Aboriginals he came into contact with during that time in history. It was not until Frum came up with the Problem Solving Model, CAPRA did it really begin to sink in. However, it took many hours of explanation, to the many nay Sayers, by applying the process of the Model into everyday policing scenarios did it begin to take hold. Those who believed in the process became the champions and those who didn’t, were left behind. I wonder if the committee that was tasked to draft the policy/legislation on the Get Tough Crime Bill, was ever given a presentation by any of the police agencies in Canada on what community policing is all about. After all it seems that once this bill is given Royal Accent, those police agencies who fully embrace Community Policing are being sent a message that this philosophy no longer exists. Is that what Canadians really want? In fact is that what other countries really want? Many countries around the world came to the RCMP to look at what it was doing in the way of community policing. As a result many of those countries adopted what the RCMP was doing. It is obvious the last A (Assessment) in the Model is what those who want to push the crime bill through need to have an understating of, in other words what worked, what did not work and most importantly what did we learn from the option(s) we chose?
    I do hope that your Blog will open the eyes of those who can still re-think what is being proposed. This bill is not about being left wing or right wing. It is about doing the right thing. First of all prevent people from committing crimes, if possible, but if they are first offenders and the crime is not serious, ask is Restorative Justice an option? If so do it. However, if not, and a period of time is to be spent in a facility for the crime committed, have programs in place to rehabilitate the individual so that once released back into society the person utilises what they have learned to turn ones life around.
    Everything you mention relates back to the “Rule of Law” in today’s society. In our judicial system there are three pillars. The three pillars being the Police, the Courts and the Prisons. One cannot operate separately from the other. However, in many countries of the world today, they do, and that is where the citizens lose trust in their judicial system. The police are given tremendous powers. If they do not respect the rights and freedoms of the citizens of their country, the people will soon lose trust in their police service. If the courts consisting of lawyers and judges do not have the brightest and the best to either prosecute or defend their clients and best and the brightest hearing the cases, poor jurisprudence will come about. If programs are not set up in detention centers, provincial goals or ederal prisons, to rehabilitate those before being released back into society to become good citizens then the total system is in disarray.
    Forge ahead Alex you will have plenty of support.


    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks for your insights Bob. To hear this from a police officer with your depth and range of experience is very powerful indeed.

    • Mark Hammer says:

      Great post, and a great read.

      Alex obviously has greater insight into this than most or all here, but sometimes I wonder if those people at Justice who get tasked with drafting legislation are folks with a full grasp of the phenomena they are drafting legislation about. That is not at all a slight at their competence or good will, but I understand all too well how easy it is for people to end up working in silos, relatively cut off from the information that might enlarge their perspective and lead to wiser public policy and laws to support it. Bob’s post suggests that isolation is common.

      On a rather tangential note, a good friend used to work with violent sexual offenders in the federal system as a forensic psychologist and treatment program developer. He described a rather typical trajectory as something like this. The offender gets 7 years and spends the first 6 of it in a masturbatory fantasy world, entrenching the world-view and habits that got them in there in the first place, aided and abetted by a rather bizarre subculture of woman who carry on pen-pal relationships with these offenders, convinced that they are “misunderstood” and certain they can “save” them. Somewhere around the end of year 6, a half-hearted attempt at rehabilitation is begun, but by that point it is rather late in the game and there is an enormous amount of lost ground to make up. Sentence is completed before treatment is, and the offender is released, not very much improved in terms of risk to society.

      As Bob makes abundantly clear, people can end up in the correctional system for a wide, and often unanticipated, array of reasons. But if the key is not thrown away, they WILL be released eventually, whether after serving full sentence or not. There are far more of these folks than there are of folks whose offense will result in the key being thrown away. So the question to be addressed is whether we will have the mechanisms in place, and make the effort required, such that the people who walk out are better, and more capable and sustainable, examples of citizenship than when they went in. A “tougher” approach only addresses the circumstances under which people enter the system; it does not address the characteristics of those who leave it.

      • himelfarb says:

        On the general point, there is no question that government can get cut off from the world as people actually live it and has to therefore work hard at bringing the outside in, being open, and engaging those most involved and affected. As for the idea that most people are released no better than they started check out some John Howard or Elizabeth Fry sites to see how many success stories there are and how important it is that we not lose that.

      • Mark Hammer says:

        Please don’t misunderstand me. I wasn’t intending to imply that the preponderance leave no better than they went in, or that it is a hopeless case. Rather, it should be our overarching goal that as many as is possible leave better than they went in, and that we avoid those worst-case scenarios like my friend described to me. That’s what being *effective* on crime (as opposed to merely tough) implies…at least to me.

        As for the efforts of the John Howard and Elizabeth Fry societies, Kim Pate (from E. Fry) was a former student of mine. And while I have little doubt that the Intro Psych course she took from me was of very minor influence on her direction in life and her positive impact, I get a little bit of “nachis” from it, when I hear her interviewed on the news.

      • himelfarb says:

        You set out the goal with admirable clarity and a little bit of “nachis” is a very fine thing.

  12. Paula Mallea says:

    Dr. Himelfarb:

    Thank you for another lucid discussion of the mean-minded and counterproductive tough-on-crime approach to criminal justice. I was recently asked to write a book on the subject by James Lorimer Publishers, and it will be released this fall. It is titled Fearmonger: Stephen Harper’s Tough-on-Crime Agenda. It is my best effort to alert the public to the dangers and expense of the Conservative agenda. I hope your many fans (and the opposition parties in parliament) will object loudly to the omnibus bill when it is introduced.

    Paula Mallea

  13. Mark Hammer says:

    Here’s an interesting paper on “punishment” I stumbled onto at the Brookings Institution site.
    You may find it of relevance. A slightly different slant.

    • Himelfarb says:

      Thanks Mark, As always very useful and entirely relevant. I for one worry about the tranlation of moral issues into the language of pathology but we cannot afford to ignore the findings of neuro-science. Thanks for this.

  14. Mark Hammer says:

    As one raised in the Donald Hebb-governed world at McGill, I was always cautioned to be wary of “neurologizing” and the reification of social constructs in the brain. One of my prized possessions is a 1950’s book on lobotomy by a well-respected neurophysiologist of the time. One of the brain cross-section diagrams in it shows arrows pointing to a “guilt” centre in the frontal lobe. While it is certainly true that impulse-control is compromised by frontal lobe damage, the “guilt” label is reflective of the psychoanalytic lens brought to bear at that time: the social construct made real in the brain.

    Now, I’m not in the loop on such matters, but it would not surprise me a bit if, one or two revisions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) hence, a number of things like obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder and ADHD, anger management difficulties, kleptomania, compulsive gambling, substance abuse, eating disorders, internet/sex/pornography “addiction”, a variety of sexual problems, maybe even Tourette’s Syndrome, and a host of other things get subsumed under the broader heading of “impulse-control disorders”. While at one level, that makes eminent sense from a scientific perspective, from a forensic and justice perspective you gotta wonder. Will impulse-control difficulties become reified by cognitive neuroscience and turn into *the* generic excuse for misbehaviour (“Oh crap”, the prosecutor will think, “the defense attorney’s playing the impulse-control disorder card!”). I mean, in one sense it truly IS a matter of impulse control. But once THAT gets turned into neurophysiology and pretty primary-colour neuro-imaging pictures, “free will” makes a hasty exit, and with it culpability and clear thinking on sentencing and rehabilitation.

    Scientific curiosity can sure make for some very slippery socio-legal slopes.

    I’m pretty confident you noticed it, but the Brookings page I linked to is but one snippet of the overall chapter. The link to the entire chapter PDF is at the very bottom of that page.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks, Mark. Very useful. I agree that it is one thing to identify causal factors and quite another completely to deny human will, agency, responsibility.

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