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Can You Really Be "Tough on Crime?"

What we're all missing in the hoopla over conservative courts.

Richard Warnica 19 Feb

Richard Warnica is a senior editor at The Tyee.

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The Conservative government aims to stack the courts with law-and-order, tough-on-crime judges; that was the story that dominated Ottawa last week, after The Globe and Mail published an A1 feature demonstrating that the committees that vet judges were being crammed with conservative partisans.

The story had competing newspapers and politicians bickering all week. In Parliament, the Liberals accused the Tories of abusing the division of powers. While in the press, The National Post charged that the Liberals did the exact same when they were in power.

Later in the week, the prime minister himself weighed in. "We want to make sure we are bringing forward laws to make sure that we crack down on crime, that we make our streets and communities safer," Stephen Harper said in the Commons Wednesday (according to The Globe and Mail). "We want to make sure our selection of judges is in correspondence with those objectives."

But while reporters, columnists and editorial boards concerned themselves with a game of who stacked whom, few were asking what seemed the more relevant questions. Namely, how exactly does a judge "crack down on crime"? And, when they do whatever it is they do, does it actually make the streets safer?

One of Canada's smartest writers on crime policy is the Ottawa Citizen's Dan Gardner. (Read his column "Crime is more puzzling than rocket science" for a good example.) Gardener is currently on leave, working on a book, so I e-mailed him to ask for his thoughts on the situation.

"Every political spinner knows that getting journalists and the public to use terminology that frames an issue in the way your side wants it framed is half the battle in politics," Gardner told me. "'Tough on crime' is a classic example of this form of manipulation.

"The package of policies that goes under the banner of 'tough on crime' is indisputably tough on those criminals who are caught and convicted," he went on. "But the label 'tough on crime' forces us to equate that very limited fact with being tough on crime itself."

Those policies -- longer sentences and less parole, for example -- are very popular with sections of the voting public. But, as Gardner told me, there is very little evidence that they actually deter crime.

"Heaps of criminological research shows that increased likelihood of arrest does deter criminals," Gardner said, "but increased punishment does not.

"To summarize a very complex subject: sending more criminals to prison for longer produces only very modest reductions in crime at enormous cost. If we had limitless pots of money to spend, maybe that would make sense. But here in the real world, where every dollar spent on guards and barbed wire is a dollar not available for education, health care or (if you prefer) tax cuts, it's just plain dumb."

If what Gardner says is true, and there's no reason to believe it isn't, why does the "tough on crime" myth still exist? Why do we let politicians and pundits get away with equating policies that are harsh on criminals with those that are harsh on crime?

At least part of the problem, in Gardner's mind, is reporters who are "stupid, lazy or both."

"It takes time, effort and a few brain cells to find and study policy research," he said. "Anyone who reads a newspaper or watches TV knows there are far too many reporters who prefer to simply repeat the lines in the press release -- "the minister says the new law will ensure sunshine and lollipops for all Canadians" -- and then move quickly on to the politics of the matter.

"That's another problem: we pay way too much attention to politics. I suspect the quality of reporting on public policy would immediately improve if we loaded every political reporter, analyst and talking head into a barge and sank it in the Ottawa River."  [Tyee]

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