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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Manitoba NDP’s ‘tough on crime’ pledges will not keep people safe

The party’s platform doubles down on carceral policies that won’t improve public safety

Canadian PoliticsPolicing

Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew lays out his party’s “5-point Strategy to be Tough on Crime and Tough on the Causes of Crime” in Winnipeg, August 17, 2023. Photo courtesy the Manitoba NDP/Facebook.

Manitoba’s provincial election is now underway. The governing Progressive Conservatives led by Heather Stefanson, who are now missing one-quarter of their incumbents, are hoping to stave off the probable return of the NDP to power under the leadership of Wab Kinew. Yet, as CBC’s Bartley Kives points out, the outcome on October 3 is far from certain as “Manitoba’s race will be decided by a few thousand politically promiscuous voters in six to 10 swing seats, mostly on the suburban fringes in Winnipeg but also in a handful of areas outside the Perimeter, such as Selkirk and Dauphin.” These are the constituents that both major parties are targeting.

The narrow focus in this race on suburban and rural ridings could help to explain the heavy emphasis by both the PCs and the NDP on demonstrating their so-called “tough on crime” and “public safety” credentials. During only 16 days of July’s “pre-election period,” the PC government announced a combined $35.1 million in spending on police in Manitoba, including $10 million for “downtown safety” in Winnipeg. The party has also once again ratcheted up its personal attacks on Kinew, who is Anishinaabe, through prolific bus bench advertising featuring an image of notorious Winnipeg cop Rejeanne Caron claiming that “under Wab Kinew, violent crime will only get worse.” These efforts have been culture-jammed and interpreted as desperate moves to distract from the party’s devastating record on underfunding and crippling health care and public services.

The NDP has also embarked on a “tough on crime” campaign, and put forward several conventionally right-wing pledges like balancing the budget and temporarily suspending the gas tax (the latter of which was celebrated by the pro-business Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation). Like with the PCs, this orientation is not new, but it has been surprising to some supporters of the NDP who haven’t been students of their record on criminal justice spending.

While in power between 1999 and 2015, the NDP oversaw a massive jail-building spree, fought for mandatory minimum sentencing, and ballooned provincial funding of police and jails. Since then, in opposition, the party has opposed jail closures, supported cops in liquor stores, and rejected calls to cut police funding. Even the party’s slogan for this issue—“Tough on Crime and Tough on the Causes of Crime”—is regurgitated from previous campaigns dating back to 1997 and borrowed from the UK’s “New Labour” policies under Tony Blair.

This analysis does not attempt to assess the electoral viability of this strategy, nor does it purport to provide answers about how the left should relate to the party, if at all. It is not intended to sway votes one way or the other. The NDP, it must be said, are vastly superior to the PCs on several other key issues, such as reproductive and queer and trans rights. We understand that many within the NDP support jail and police expansion, and we are not under the illusion that the New Democrats have ever tried to be an anti-carceral party and could be convinced to be one. So, what’s the point in calling out the NDP on their predictable “tough on crime” stance at this point in the election?

We are writing as two people who have been involved in organizing and researching against police and prison expansion and for sustainable, evidence-based community safety planning. We are committed to debunking the myths behind the idea that being “tough on crime” produces community safety: we know it does the opposite, and we are aligned with the communities of people it harms. We offer this unpacking of the NDP pledges on crime as a learning opportunity and tool for people who have been working to organize and build support for evidence-based community safety long before this election, and who we know will continue to do so despite the imminent election of one of two “tough on crime” parties.

Moreover, this article provides an examination of each of the NDP’s concrete “crime” policies announced so far. These policies were rolled out over three days in mid-August via a widely praised and personal speech by Kinew about “crime, justice and reconciliation” and a subsequent press conference about the party’s “5-point strategy.” On August 18, the NDP held a press conference in Dauphin to announce it would open a new jail facility there to replace the prison closed by the Tories in 2020.

We are committed to debunking the myths behind the idea that being “tough on crime” produces community safety: we know it does the opposite, and we are aligned with the communities of people it harms.

Policing and jailing do not keep people safe

Simply put, police do not do what they claim to do. In contrast to the prevailing perception of cops halting violence and theft, much of their time is spent driving around neigbourhoods, conducting (frequently racist) traffic stops and street checks, and responding to tasks that can and should be done by other organizations.

Most law-breaking in Canada is not reported to police. On the lower end, only six percent of sexual assaults are reported to police, while the highest—motor vehicle/parts theft—is still only 52 percent. An average of just 29 percent of violent and property crimes are reported. Many factors contribute to this, including police racism and regular dismissal or victim-blaming in sexual violence cases. The majority of violence happens between people who know each other—not random strangers on the street—and police are not built to prevent, detect, or effectively respond to this often patterned abuse. When police do respond to calls such as a disturbance or “suspicious person,” charges are often not laid, whether because the incident is deemed non-criminal or police cannot identify an alleged perpetrator. In 2022, the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) had a clearance rate (when police recommend laying of charges) for property crimes of only 8.4 percent. For violent crimes the rate was 55.3 percent. In total, the WPS clearance rate for all crimes was a meager 24 percent, meaning that three-quarters of reported crimes did not even result in a charge. Yet a charge is not a conviction. And more importantly, a conviction followed by a sentence of imprisonment or community supervision is not justice and does not improve public safety.

Among the principles that are supposed to guide sentencing in Canada’s Criminal Code are retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation. The criminal punishment system doesn’t do any of these well: victims often feel sentences aren’t harsh enough; harsh sentences don’t deter future law-breaking behaviour; the justice system is very bad at rehabilitation; and the vast majority of people who are incapacitated will be released into the community again soon after, having had a lot taken from them including time, jobs, and relationships, and being in a severely disadvantaged position.

Police activity often puts vulnerable people in more danger. Take the policing of drug use and drug selling (consensual and non-violent crimes) which undermines the ability of drug users to consume drugs safely and leads to increased drug poisoning. Or take the policing of sex work which undermines sex worker efforts to plan for their own safety. Incarcerated people and their communities are far worse off afterwards and more likely to have to resort to criminalized activities to survive. Kinew even acknowledged this in his speech when he described jails as a “gangster university, turning small-time offenders with addictions into hardened criminals.”

Jailing someone also costs a tremendous amount of money that could be spent on social supports that actually improve community safety. In 2015/16, the average annual cost to incarcerate someone in Manitoba’s jails was $74,460. Political parties advocating for expanded policing and incarceration should be required to explain why the allocation of these resources is optimal compared to the benefits the same spending would likely produce if used to fund services like safe and desirable public housing, safe consumption sites, affordable and effective transit, and increased health care, education, and income supports.

1. Tougher bail measures

Bail—the conditional release until trial of someone who has been charged with a crime but not yet convicted or sentenced—is a deeply misunderstood system in Canada. This reality is being exploited by Stefanson and Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth in their ongoing campaign for stricter bail policies against “repeat violent offenders.”

Many factors go into the decision to grant bail, the sum of which is articulated in terms of the risk the person who is charged poses to the public. These factors include seriousness of the charge, assessment of the risks someone poses to the public, and the record of previous charges or convictions (including previous breaches of release conditions). If denied bail, the person charged is detained in remand (also known as pre-trial custody) until their court date, which is often months away. In other words, people denied bail are being jailed without having been convicted.

Given that Indigenous and racialized people are more likely to have been criminalized previously or living under conditions that are flagged as making them more “risky” to release (like no stable housing or employment, family members who have been criminalized, or no consistent access to a phone), they are also more likely to be denied bail. If granted bail, they are released into the community under “conditions of release”—such as a curfew, abstinence from substance use, or no-contact orders with certain people—that subject them to regular intense police scrutiny. Indigenous people are more likely to receive more and more restrictive conditions of release and face an overall increased likelihood of being policed, breached, and remanded. Once they have breached their conditions of release, that breach becomes another criminal charge on their rap sheet that then factors into future risk calculations. It is a vicious cycle that is very hard to break out of, even for people with community resources and support.

Contrary to conservative claims, the bail system in Canada is very harsh, with “reverse onus” already required for many serious charges. In Manitoba, roughly 75 percent of adults in custody are on remand. Remand, like sentenced custody, is often fatal, with many people dying while awaiting trial (including five people in the Winnipeg Remand Centre in 2016 alone). As the University of Ottawa Prison Law Practicum recently put it: “If the government is concerned about reducing violence and death, it should be looking at how to release prisoners, not how to create more of them.”

There is no basis for claiming increased safety due to harsher bail practices. Most recent high-profile violence has not involved people on bail. Further, a 2013 study found that only 18 percent of people on bail violated terms of their release, with 98 percent of those violations being “administration of justice offences” such as breaches of release conditions or failing to attend court.

The NDP’s commitment to implementing National Police Federation recommendations on provincial bail measures, as well as joining the likes of Stefanson and Smyth in demanding federal tightening of policies, will lead to a significant intensification of policing in Indigenous communities, and a likely spike in the overall jail population. In this way, the provincial NDP’s crime strategy is at least internally aligned: their investments in policing will in fact require more investments in jail capacity, both of which they have committed to. This policy is wholly concerned with punitive surveillance of criminalized people, rather than implementing supportive community infrastructure that could set them up for future success instead of future repeat criminalization.

Stricter bail policies will only funnel more people into a system that leads to greater exposure to violence, physical and mental illness, deprivation of family and community supports, and premature death. It will lead to more violence and harm both inside and outside of prisons, jails, and detention centers. Buried in the dehumanizing language of “catch and release” that police are using to characterize current bail practices, is implicit recognition of the reality that incarceration doesn’t actually help anyone but is instead what Angela Davis termed “the black hole into which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited.”

2. Cracking down on drug traffickers

“Unexplained wealth orders” are an increasingly popular tool that requires alleged criminals to explain where they got the money to purchase expensive homes and vehicles.

In his speech, Kinew vowed to use this tool to “bring the hammer down” on “drug traffickers,” explaining that “where there are gangsters with million dollar homes and hundred thousand dollar cars right underneath the noses of this government to date, a future Manitoba NDP government will ask, ‘how did you get that?’ And if you can’t explain it, we will hold you accountable.” This policy mixes deterrence with retribution, with Kinew reiterating that “if you bring drugs into our communities, you deserve to face the consequences.”

In essence, this policy would represent a significant expansion of existing criminal property forfeiture processes. Like with bail policies, this concerns people who have not yet been convicted of a crime, but who are merely suspected of committing one. The BC Civil Liberties Association recently denounced its use as functioning to “erode privacy rights, undermine the presumption of innocence, and subvert the rights that shield people from unreasonable search and seizure.”

As a specific policy, cracking down on so-called “traffickers” through such practices is likely to contribute to racist policing practices, providing cops with further license to perform street checks and targeted investigations that could result in bigger “drug busts” and arrests down the line.

Generally speaking, it is also well established that flashy drug seizures and criminalization of people involved in the trade doesn’t actually reduce consumption of drugs—it simply puts drug users at heightened risk of drug poisoning from a toxic supply by disrupting their access to a familiar and relatively reliable source. A recent study of dealer arrests in Indianapolis concluded that fatal overdoses doubled in the week following a crackdown on opioid supply, with one of its authors recounting conversations with survivors that “they couldn’t find their normal dealer, and had to rely on unfamiliar supply from someone they didn’t know.” The same process was recently recounted about a recent bust in Winnipeg in this X (Twitter) thread.

Rather than framing the issue as a dichotomy between “addiction” and “recovery,” drug user activists have called for acknowledgement of the political nature of the crisis: a toxic unregulated drug supply and a lack of resources for drug users that do not mandate abstinence as a condition of support. The alternative to this headline-grabbing policy of “unexplained wealth” is simple: follow the recommendation of drug user and harm reduction activists and guarantee a safe and regulated supply of drugs, along with safe consumption sites, drug testing and other life-saving harm reduction measures.

3. Hiring mental health workers to respond to non-violent calls

The mental health system in Manitoba is in crisis and it could undoubtedly benefit from more staff. To this end, the NDP have promised to hire 100 additional mental health workers “to work alongside law enforcement” to address treatment needs. But why tether these new employees to police? On first glance, this $12 million a year policy may sound like a progressive idea, possibly drawing inspiration from the much-celebrated CAHOOTS model in Eugene, Oregon (which was recently moved from the police to fire department). However, there are reasons to be concerned about the positioning of mental health workers “alongside” cops, given that the capacity of such a worker to actually de-escalate a crisis situation is significantly reduced if police are involved.

In a pairing of mental health professionals and police officers, whose definition of the problem is likely to take precedence? There is an active movement among physicians and psychiatrists to decouple emergency services from policing because of the ways it diminishes their ability to provide equitable and accessible health care. Mental health crises become emergencies in the context of other forms of vulnerability and insecurity, and they don’t come out of nowhere. While alternative non-police mental health responses are much needed, emphasis should be placed on expanding the range of resources available to people trying to plan for their own mental health and safety—along with housing, a safe supply of drugs, food, and so on—well before they reach a crisis point.

4. Ending chronic homelessness in two terms

The NDP’s $20 million per year pledge to end chronic homelessness “by connecting people with housing and mental health supports” is also a potentially promising policy that meets a glaring need at the centre of many people’s vulnerabilities to violence and criminalization: lack of access to stable and secure housing. The housing market, left to its own devices, does not provide reliable shelter for low-income people because it is not profitable for landlords. This is the basic rationale for government intervention in housing markets.

Like with the previous idea, there are some big unresolved questions, however. For one, the NDP highlighted working with non-profits and private landlords on the strategy as “it isn’t realistic for the government to rely fully on the social housing that exists.” Further, the party is modelling its approach after a housing-first model in Houston that has been celebrated by its architects for allowing the city to spend “less than what any other major city spends to address the issue” and demonstrating how to be “smarter” within a context of limited resources.

Such a framing appears to reject or downplay the urgent need for a mass buildout of public housing in response to years of PC privatization, and prioritizes the profits of landlords over the needs of renters. The NDP also ignored a call from the Right to Housing Coalition for 10,000 new units of rent-geared-to-income (RGI) housing to be built over the next decade, choosing instead to promote a $175 per year increase in a tax credit for renters and vague commitments to tighter rent control and protecting existing non-profit housing.

5. Hiring more cops

Following the August 17 press conference, questions by media revealed that Kinew doesn’t think that Manitoba has enough cops and that he supports the hiring of more “if that’s what law enforcement says is necessary.” This pledge, which supposes that police force and unions have ever been satisfied with existing staffing levels, followed his assurance in a speech the day prior that he would “never defund the police.” Although unspecified, this commitment could represent an enormous financial cost given that almost 1,300 Winnipeg Police employees earn more than $100,000 a year, not including pension costs.

Greater numbers of police will not improve public safety and will further destabilize the lives of people targeted by police for surveillance, intimidation, harassment, and formal criminalization. The mantra “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime” does not take into account the fact that the same people who are most vulnerable to violence are also most vulnerable to criminalization, and that whether a person is deemed worthy of being treated with social support or criminalization is mostly determined by the institution most ready to respond to their crisis.

6. Re-opening Dauphin jail

While most of the NDP’s policies feature some combination of incapacitation, deterrence, and retribution, the proposal to rebuild the Dauphin jail for $40 million following its closure by the PCs in 2020 has been explicitly framed as a rehabilitative measure. At the time of its closure, Kinew called for the creation of a “traditional healing lodge” that “uses rehabilitation to address the root causes of crime.” Although that language is no longer being used, the proposed title of a “Centre for Justice” and public support from the Manitoba Métis Federation and the Southern Chiefs’ Organization hints at some sort of through-line.

Defending the Dauphin jail from closure has been a major priority of the NDP over the last several years, and is likely related to the region’s importance as a swing riding and the importance of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU) to the party. Between May 2020 and April 2021, NDP MLAs read out a petition to stop its closure in the Legislature a total of 209 times. Between November 17 and December 2, 2020, it was read 87 times, up to a dozen times a day.

Despite the title and support from Indigenous leadership, it seems doubtful that the “Centre for Justice” would represent any kind of radical break from existing carceral strategies. The prominence in messaging to the 80 unionized jobs lost in 2020, as well as the location of the jail itself, suggests an intent to rebuild job opportunities for unionized workers, not Indigenous elders or community members. There has also been critique of the co-optation and subsumption of healing lodges within colonial “correctional” systems.

As previously argued in Canadian Dimension, a far better response to the loss of unionized employment at the jail would be through rejecting further criminalization and committing to building “good jobs in life-affirming social services, and strong unions who work to expand their ranks, not pit members against not-yet-members.”

The need for ‘decarceration as our overarching strategy’

Regrettably, but not surprisingly, the NDP platform on “crime” largely doubles down on policies that will not lead to greater public safety.

While the NDP has a better track record than the PCs on housing and health care spending, their insistence on expanding the carceral state will directly undermine the ability of those systems to improve the lives of the most oppressed Manitobans. As Angela Davis has so aptly summarized: “prisons don’t disappear social problems, they disappear human beings.” And in that way, they fuel cycles of violence.

The system does not help people get housing, jobs, health care, and other social supports. It rips these things away in the name of “public safety,” which it ironically further undermines. The system doesn’t offer victims opportunities for healing, and it doesn’t offer perpetrators (very likely to have also been victims themselves) opportunities for real accountability.

Since the movement to defund the police sparked a massive shift in global consciousness about the harms of policing in 2020, there has been a backlash that has seen power brokers across the political spectrum scramble to instead defend and refund the police.

In the meantime, people at the forefront of violence and harm have continued to envision and plan for abolitionist alternatives. As Kinew noted in his speech, Indigenous people in Manitoba are most likely to be victims of crime and are therefore among the most invested in meaningful and effective responses to violence. Indeed, the abolitionist movement owes its practice and theorizing to the work of feminists of colour, including Indigenous feminists, who have worked to respond to violence and build healthy communities in spite of the violence wrought by the ever widening carceral net.

The NDP may or may not win on October 3 with a regurgitated “tough on crime” strategy. Regardless, like with the PC’s reactionary approach, it should be firmly rejected. True safety means expanding access to the resources that allow the most vulnerable to plan for their security and wellbeing in ways of their choosing—including public housing, a legal and regulated safe supply of drugs, food distribution, fare-free transit, income supports, and so much more. The solution does not lie with more policing and incarceration.

James Wilt is a Winnipeg-based writer and member of the organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm.

Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Winnipeg and a member of Millennium for All, Bar None, and the 2023 International Day Against Police Brutality organizing committee.

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