Crime and Criminal Justice: Why they matter in this election

A recent Nanos research poll tells us that Canadians view health care and the economy as the two most important issues in the current election campaign; education, the environment and government debt finish a distant third, fourth and fifth. Crime is not even mentioned in the poll results.

And yet crime seems to be very important to the Harper government. If given a majority, Stephen Harper has promised to bundle together a series of crime bills, all of which work to lengthen imprisonment for individuals convicted of crime – at a time when crime is actually decreasing. His “Truth in Sentencing” legislation, already passed, is filling Canada’s jails and is estimated to cost taxpayers more than $5 billion over the next five years. The costs of his proposed legislation, particularly mandatory minimum terms for drug offenders, have not been disclosed – an approach that led to his government being found in contempt of Parliament.  If enacted, almost all experts agree that his proposed legislation will cost Canadians billions. So much for improvements in health care and education – they will have to take a back seat to locking people up.

Why would a government that claims to be fiscally conservative spend billions of dollars on projects that have no demonstrable influence on our rates of crime, or the safety of our communities?

The answer to this question is unpalatable but unmistakeable. Stephen Harper’s approach to crime is nasty – it lacks civility; he likes the idea of putting more people in prison, and for longer periods of time. It does not matter at all that such an approach is costly, unproductive, and in many circumstances, counter-productive.  Americans of all political stripes – Democrats and Republicans alike – are now trying to retreat from the costly failure of 20 years of radical increases in their imprisonment.  But at a time when thoughtful government restraint is crucial, Mr. Harper is quite content to repeat the mistakes made in the United States.

And that’s why crime should be more important in this election. Not because crime is reeling out of control and drastic measures are needed, but because the election of a Harper government is a vote for punitive policies, without any regard for their consequences.  The Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill said in 1910 that one of the unfailing tests of a civilization is how it treats its crime and criminals.

Unhappily, Mr. Harper is a much less civilized conservative than Winston Churchill. Harper is more attuned to the sensibilities of George Bush, the Tea Party and Glenn Beck. Politics is a cultural war for Mr. Harper — and that is precisely why he is both a dismal and frightening choice for Prime Minister.

What is at least as disheartening is the reluctance of opposition leaders to speak out, until very recently, on issues of crime – to take issue with the waste of spending billions of dollars on jails, at a time when crime is declining. Perhaps the problem is one of alienating voters. Most Canadians still believe, quite mistakenly, that long sentences will reduce the crime rate, and opposition politicians confront that perception at their peril.  Not surprisingly, the key to electoral success is to appeal to what voters want – and calling yourself tough on crime has, historically, been a relatively easy sell, despite its lack of empirical support.

In the final analysis, perhaps the problem is systemic: only a minority of us endorse Harper’s approach to crime, but in our system of government, sadly enough, a government that has support from less than half of Canada’s eligible voters, may get to do precisely what it wants.

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One Response to “Crime and Criminal Justice: Why they matter in this election”

  1. Hazel Trego Says:

    …. and here we go, he has a mandate, apparently. Very discouraging election results. Let’s hope Jack is up for the fight.

    My article on Suite101 makes the comparison between spending on schools and spending on prisons…

    …and the reality of crime in Canada

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