Responding to Crime: Fear Drives Politics

In 1910 Winston Churchill stated that one of the “unfailing tests” of a civilization lies in how it treats crime and criminals. In 1967 Pierre Trudeau told Canadians that the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.

Pronouncements from our current politicians are rather different in tone. Conservative Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has opposed same sex unions, argued in favour of reducing the age of criminal responsibility to 10, and suggested that if sexual orientation was to become a protected category under Canada’s hate crime legislation, “homosexual activists” might sue hotel chains to remove Bibles as a form of hate literature.

As part of a “getting tough on crime” agenda, our current Justice Minister Rob Nicholson wants to impose a minimum term of six months in prison on anyone who grows more than six marijuana plants, and to lengthen terms of imprisonment in a wide range of other contexts, (even though rates of serious violent crime are much lower today than they were 30 years ago).

More simply put, the federal government wants to put more people in jail. The approach that they advocate has no empirical support – no examples from other jurisdictions to establish that crime rates will be affected in any beneficial manner. And yet the opposition, until very recently, has avoided criticism of this legislative package, explaining that they fear being tarred as “soft on crime”.

The unfortunate reality is that many in opposition, like the Conservatives, are allowing fear to drive their agenda. Worse than that, they appear to believe that Canadians can’t actually be convinced of the unproductive and costly heart of the Conservative agenda. Worst of all, our culture and our country are being shortchanged by a barrage of name-calling and finger pointing.

Consider two recent legislative initiatives and how they might have been more productively handled. First, mandatory minimum terms for marijuana growers. We know from polling that most Canadians don’t think that adults who use the drug should be treated as criminals. Polling also tells us, however, that Canadians are concerned about large scale grow operations that have violence or the threat of violence attached – traps, rip offs, handguns on the premises, and the possibility that children may be victimized.

A thoughtful Minister of Justice might say something like the following, “ We have no desire to target adult Canadians who use this drug in private, by themselves, or with other consenting adults. We do, however, have concerns about the violence attached to some parts of the marijuana trade, and we are, accordingly, suggesting that minimum terms of imprisonment be imposed in circumstances where marijuana cultivation is combined with violence or the threat of violence. We are not concerned about individuals who grow small amounts of marijuana for themselves, but we are concerned about a large scale system of distribution, backed by violence or threats of violence”.

My guess is that most Canadians would agree with such a statement, but what the Conservatives are proposing is so far from this reality that it is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry.

Consider, secondly, the pardon granted to convicted sex offender Graham James. The Prime Minister’s office described the pardon as “deeply troubling and gravely disturbing” and demanded an explanation from the Parole Board, a reaction designed to foment public fear and anger.

A more responsible Conservative Prime Minister, one more in keeping with the character of Winston Churchill, might have said something like the following:

“I understand that many Canadians, particularly the victims of Mr. James, might be very upset by the granting of this pardon. Current law dictates that there are only a few categories of convicted criminals who are not eligible to apply for a pardon, most notably those convicted of murder, and those designated as dangerous offenders. I will ask the Parole Board to look into the specifics of the granting of a pardon to Mr. James, and we will similarly consider, as a government, whether there are other categories of criminal conviction that might best be excluded from the pardon process. The difficult task here is that of balancing individual case decisions with the more broad objectives of granting pardons to those convicted of criminal offences”.

Again, the objective in this instance is one of acknowledging a concern, setting out potential solutions, and moving forward without fear or anger as the motivating priorities. The tragedy is that Canada’s current approach to crime and justice is not about logic, frank discussions or debates grounded in relevant information. Could we do better? I certainly hope so.

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One Response to “Responding to Crime: Fear Drives Politics”

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