The B.C. Liberals Embrace the Crime Bill: The Principle is Political Expediency

November 9th, 2011

“I support keeping our streets safe”, Premier Christy Clark told the legislature last week, in support of the Harper Conservatives’ crime bill. “Where do they stand on a bill that intends to make Canadian streets safer?” she asked of the NDP opposition. Her comments, as one reporter noted, spoke “to a certain constituency her B.C. Liberal party is obsessively courting”. Ms. Clark was “trying to coax back to her tent the 18 per cent of voters who, the pollsters say, support the fledgling B.C. Conservative party”. One can imagine the Randy Newman song, “Rednecks”, playing softly in the background.

The Premier is an intelligent woman; she must know that the very expensive elements of the crime bill have nothing to do with making our streets safer. The Youth Criminal Justice Act already mandates significant sentences and almost routine transfer to adult court for youth offenders who commit serious crimes of violence. The wholesale elimination of conditional sentences for a range of property offences removes judicial discretion from cases where house arrest would be an appropriate judicial response. Perhaps most important, the crime rate has been declining and there is no credible evidence that putting all sorts of people in jail for longer periods of time will make our society more safe.

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The Conservatives’ Crime Bill: Mean, but far from Lean

September 30th, 2011

With a majority government the Harper Conservatives have indicated that they now have electoral support for their agenda of dramatically increasing Canada’s prison population. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told the media last week that his government has “ a strong mandate to move forward”.

Close attention to relevant data – or even basic arithmetic – does not appear to be a hallmark of the current government. Slightly less than 40 per cent of Canadian voters cast their ballots for the Conservatives earlier this year, and only 61 per cent of eligible voters actually made it to the polls. The reality, then, is that the Conservatives – and many of their policies — would appear to have the support of less than 25 per cent of adult Canadians.

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In Memory of Liz Elliott, 1957-2011

September 12th, 2011

One of my first enduring visual memories of Liz Elliott is from a day in the late 1980s. Liz had just moved from Ontario to study in our Ph.D. program, and she was interested in murder – or more specifically, state responses to murder and murderers. The School of Criminology was in its first of three locations, on the 7th floor of the SFU Library; Liz was almost nine months pregnant and Milt had arrived in the School to pick her up. “Come on, rotunda”, he said to her affectionately, as they walked out of the department that day.

I did not know then how much I would learn from Liz Elliott and how much she would influence my view of murder and murderers, of prisons and prisoners, and of the importance of understanding and supporting those human beings who are typically the most vilified within our culture. In a recent email Liz thanked me for being a mentor to her (along with expressing frustration and outrage at yet another particularly lame initiative from the Harper Conservatives).

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Silly Bowen Bylaws

July 9th, 2011

Re: Public Hearing, July 9th re: OCP, Steep Slopes, ESA and WASP Bylaws


Dear Mayor Turner and Members of Council:

I write to urge you to postpone consideration of the above bylaws, most particularly Amendment Bylaw No. 299, 2011 (Environmentally Sensitive Development Permit Areas). I do not think the public has been adequately informed or consulted about what you are proposing, and I do not think that your proposals enjoy anything more than the support of a small minority of Bowen Islanders. Perhaps more to the point, the municipality’s publication of details both on its website and in our local newspaper has been very difficult to follow, even for those of us who try to keep up with municipal politics. What we have seen to date is a virtually impenetrable assembly of acronyms, accompanied by substantial amounts of relatively confusing text, and maps detailing environmentally sensitive areas of various kinds — without any significant justification for the locations of these areas.

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Young Men in Groups: Reflections on the Vancouver Riot

June 20th, 2011

Some years ago one of our local police officers made the telling observation that if it wasn’t for alcohol, he’d probably only have a part-time job. One could add to his insight the observation that if it wasn’t for young men between the ages of 15 and 25, we would probably have much less need for law enforcement in our communities.

A lot has been written about the riot in Vancouver in the aftermath of the Canucks loss, and almost all of this writing has something to offer. It has been noted that a small group of young men were at the epicentre of the riot, and that many other young people stood by and watched as glass was smashed, stores were looted, and cars were set on fire. Many have observed that even those committing criminal offences, wearing Canucks jerseys, were likely hockey fans – just not the kinds of hockey fans that we want to claim as our own.

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Mandatory Minimum Terms for Cannabis Cultivation: How Crazy Will the Harper Conservatives Be With Their “Majority”?

June 13th, 2011

One of the most foolish and costly planks of the Conservatives’ so-called get tough on crime agenda is their plan to impose mandatory minimum terms of six months imprisonment on those who grow at least six marijuana plants.

It is instructive to consider the likely impacts of such a proposal. A 2005 study  of seven years of  marijuana cultivation arrests in British Columbia revealed that more than 80 per cent of growers did not have guns or traps at their sites, were not involved in organized crime, and were not involved in  any theft of electricity. In other words, most marijuana cultivation takes place without imposing significant threats upon the surrounding community. Further, and this apparently needs to be said repeatedly – the consumption of cannabis is much less likely to lead to significant harm and premature death than the consumption of the perfectly legal and socially acceptable drugs — alcohol and tobacco — even when rates of use are taken into account.

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Crime and Criminal Justice: Why they matter in this election

April 11th, 2011

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.

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Trying to Understand the Tougher Sentences of the Harper Conservatives: You Don’t Need Evidence — You’ve Got To Have Faith

February 26th, 2011

The Harper Conservatives are under fire for their extraordinarily expensive legislative initiative, Bill S-10. Among other things, it seeks to spend at least hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers dollars on prison building, in order to impose a mandatory minimum term of six months in jail for anyone who grows more than six marijuana plants. Most Canadians, experts and non-experts alike, have criticized the proposal as costly and counter-productive, noting that it will imprison individuals who are mostly non-violent and who sell to willing adult consumers.

It’s not that marijuana is benign. For some people and in some circumstances it can be a problematic drug, as can most other psychoactive substances that are widely circulated in our culture – tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, maybe even chocolate. What’s initially much more puzzling is the extent to which the Harper Conservatives are ignoring all relevant evidence regarding the utility of mandatory minimum terms for drug offences. We know that mandatory minimums are the leading cause of the massive explosion in U.S. prison populations, imposing extraordinary costs without any demonstrable benefits – the percentages of Americans who use cannabis and other illegal drugs has not been impacted by this massive project of imprisonment, and today most American legislators of both the political left (Barack Obama) and the right (Newt Gingrich) are now trying to figure out how to make the criminal justice system less reliant on imprisonment, and more effective. Perhaps even more oddly, the percentage of both Canadians and Americans who used cannabis in the last year sits at 10 per cent,  about 50 per cent higher per capita than the percentage of Dutch citizens who used cannabis –  a country in which the drug can be bought without prosecution, at any number of so-called coffee shops.

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Money for Nothing and Your Chicks for Free: Another Loss for Context and Subtlety

January 14th, 2011

A poll in this morning’s Globe and Mail asked its readers, “Do you think the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council was right to censor the gay slur in Dire Strait’s Money for Nothing”. The most popular response from more than 10,000 voters? A simple (and simplistic) yes. Forty per cent of those responding say “profanity and slurs should be banned from the airwaves”. The next most popular response? A simple (and simplistic) no. Thirty per cent say “radio stations should be free to play whatever they want”. The least popular response? “No, the word was used in context”.

It’s an interesting example, in what is arguably the most literate newspaper in the country, of our collective preference for black and white answers and our corresponding reluctance to embrace context and subtlety.

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

December 6th, 2010

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.

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