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Finding Virtue in a Culture of Vengeance

The Harper Approach to Crime

Canadian Politics

In the coming months, the now-majority Conservative government will make good on their campaign promises to move forward a series of “tough-on-crime” bills that fell to the floor prior to the dissolution of Parliament this past March. While the final bill has yet to be introduced, the previous bills which are almost certain to be included will increase police powers, weaken privacy and civil liberties protections, “toughen” youth criminal justice policies, restrict or eliminate conditional sentencing, and legislate more mandatory minimum sentences, further decreasing judicial discretion. In short, it will focus on punishment and put more people in prison for longer periods of time. Prison populations are estimated to increase by thousands over the next few years. Such a shift in policy might very well be dangerous in itself and Canadians can look south of the border for evidence of where a highly punitive, “war on crime”style criminal justice system can lead.

Easy Targets: The making of vengeance culture

Since 2006, the Harper government has skipped few beats on its political war drum of justice. From the release of Karla Homolka and the pardon of convicted sexual offender Graham James to the removal of two-for-one remand credits, to rhetoric about liberal judges and the closure of prison rehabilitative farms at federal institutions – Conservatives elicit moral condemnation at a justice system perceived to be soft on offenders. With overflowing confidence they bait progressives with comments like “hug-a-thug,” some openly questioning nearly two decades of statistics suggesting crime rates are in decline.

What the punishment-driven crime overhaul really represents is the implementation of a policy agenda very much grounded in the ideology of the Conservative party and emotionally-driven sensationalism. The image of the immoral “dangerous offender” juxtaposed with a Conservative moral agenda has served neo-cons well–so well they are willing to ante up an estimated $5 billion annual increase to justice spending by 2015-2016.

Behind closed doors: The reality of the Canadian Klink

On top of these costs are the many people remanded to provincial facilities before they are even convicted and sentenced, impacting internal security, programming and costs at provincial facilities. Offenders in remand, representing almost 57% of all inmates in Canada, often receive little prison programming and contribute to an increased caustic security environment, prompting potential violence and suicide watches in facilities where they are housed.

Cost saving strategies in some prisons include housing opposing gang members in the same blocks so prisoners mitigate their own behavior, lessening the need for more guards while constantly putting the offender’s safety in a compromised position. It is well known that prison time is criminogenic, rather than a moral deterrent. Any time spent in remand drastically increases the chances of re-offending, even if a custodial sentence is not given in the end. By removing two-for-one credits Harper is exposing youth and the young to violent crime culture when most are committing non-violent crimes. In Manitoba, the car-theft capital of the country, it is a well-known fact that practice was incubated in one of its youth facilities – a decade later it is only now being controlled through proactive means.

No Doctor in the Big House

The most significant effects of these policies will be on those disadvantaged, and low-income minority communities whose members are the most likely to find themselves in circumstances that lead to criminal activities. One such community includes those people with mental health and substance abuse issues. At one time, this type of crime was considered to be public health issue, not necessarily a criminal justice issue. Today, the number of these individuals in the criminal justice system is growing rapidly. Recent estimates suggest 35% of the inmates in federal penitentiaries have mental health issues–triple the percentage in 2004 and far higher than the percentage in the general population. Most prisons were not created to be mental health facilities and few are adequately equipped to deal with such huge numbers of people needing treatment.

Many inmates leave facilities with a release plan consisting of a ride to the closest bus stop. Those with mental health problems leave the system without receiving adequate treatment and few leads to gather them on the outside. Lack of financial, housing, social and health support outside of prison combined with increasingly punitive laws means they will likely end up in the circumstances that brought them to prison with an increased possibility of reoffending.

Many of the proposed new laws seek to further the stigmatic punishment to the offender outside the system, like the publishing of names of accused youth in the media. Such a punitive system increasingly marginalizes these already-vulnerable individuals, perpetuating their socio-economic circumstances when adequate rehabilitative supports both inside prison and out fail or are limited.

The on-going legacy of colonialism and the racism towards Aboriginal peoples in Canadian society has created a situation where Aboriginal peoples (especially women) are severely and increasingly over-represented in the criminal justice system. In 2007/08, Aboriginal persons constituted only 11% of the population in Saskatchewan, but 81% of new prison admissions. A more punitive system will place increasing numbers of Aboriginal peoples in prison for longer periods of time. Combined with a lack of rehabilitative and support services, this will perpetuate this cycle of crime and punishment in communities already dispossessed.

Re-framing the Argument

Any effective opposition to the conservative moral high ground must be from a new moral narrative, re-framing the argument to challenge the conservative punitive agenda and the sensationalism of media crime reporting as the circumstantial events they represent. Healing communities, examples of preventive solutions, understanding the true costs and affect of incarceration both on the offender, community and victim of crime are key components to a progressive moral framing of the issue. In short, the public needs to understand the reality behind the curtain of the corrections system.

Key to any moral challenge to the punitive policy is to break the myths of incarceration being easy or beneficial; increasing awareness that rehabilitation can work and developing inclusive strategies to address victims and community needs outside the scope of revenge.

Increasing public demand for funding for offender skill-building, post-release treatment, community supports and victims programs (all cost-effective tools to prevent crime and fight recidivism) represent a productive alternative at fraction of the cost of incarceration.

Developing comprehensive strategies to addressing mental health, learning disabilities and drug addiction within communities are additional preventative tools to crime. All of these fit into a broader progressive ethic.

This article appeared in the Sept/Oct 2011 issue of Canadian Dimension (Canada’s Criminal (Justice) System).

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