More Prison Cells? A Poor Return on Taxpayer Dollars — and Less, not More Confidence in Our Justice System

Last week’s announcement by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews was disheartening, but predictable. In the face of stable or declining crime rates, the Harper Conservatives want to lock up more of their fellow citizens for longer periods of time, not because they think this will enhance social safety , but because they believe in punishment for its own sake; the strategy also serves to entrench their base of support amongst their hard core “law and order” supporters.

The difficulty for the Harper Conservatives is that the best available evidence demonstrates that their very costly approach — $80 million in B.C. alone — won’t enhance social safety at all. Recent research comparing about 30 nation-states reveals that there is no systematic relationship between rates of imprisonment and rates of crime. The extent to which a given country imprisons its citizens has no meaningful connection to the extent of crime that it experiences.  For example, between 1950 and 2000 criminal offences rose in Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway, in remarkably similar trajectories. At the same time, however, rates of imprisonment were quite  varied  from one country to the next, with Finland consistently decreasing its rate of imprisonment over time.  An example closer to home?  The U.S. homicide rate is at least three times as high as that of almost  all Western states and yet the U.S. imprisons more of its population per capita than any other country in the world.

The more significant relationship in the real world  — or at least in the world of science — is the relationship between imprisonment and confidence in the justice system. Globally speaking, the countries with the lowest rates of imprisonment have citizens who express the highest degrees of confidence in their justice systems. In the Baltic states of Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway about 70 per cent of citizens express  “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in their justice system – and in their fellow citizens. The portrait is quite similar in Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands, all countries with relatively low rates of imprisonment. In the United States the percentage of those expressing confidence in their justice system is about 29 per cent; in Canada the figure is about 57 per cent, not as dire as in the United States, but with our current regime in Ottawa we may yet be on track to catch those trendsetting Americans.

What’s also noteworthy is that the nation states with the highest levels of confidence in their justice systems (and in their fellow citizens) are consensus-based systems, with proportional representation as their hallmark – rather than winner take all, first past the post electoral systems. Put differently, these are states in which co-operation and compromise have become part of the culture – and it’s reflected in the confidence that citizens have in their electoral process and in each other.

As just one example of this approach to increasing rates of imprisonment we can look to Bill S-10, a Conservative legislative initiative that is currently making its way through the Senate.  The bill would imprison, for a minimum of six months, any citizen who grows more than six marijuana plants, irrespective of whether the grower uses any form of violence to accomplish his objective. A recent Angus Reid survey reveals that most Canadians don’t think marijuana use by adults should be illegal. Instead, they want the drug regulated, with health and safety as our benchmarks.

The difficulty is that the Conservatives represent the minority of Canadians (about 35 per cent of us), but they appear to be able to govern as if they represent a majority of voters. Their solutions — lock up marijuana growers and a host of other offenders, and build more jails to house these folks. Yes, these are expensive and counter-productive strategies, but the sad reality is that our electoral system encourages this kind of behaviour, if only by default.

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