By Jeff Groat
At 11:08 p.m. on Sept. 21, the State of Georgia declared Troy Davis dead. With an IV in his arm, a worker from a for-profit company injected him with a lethal cocktail, executing him after he had been found guilty of killing an off-duty police officer in 1989. Despite seven of nine witnesses recanting their testimonies (eyewitness accounts being pretty much the only evidence against Davis) the U.S. Supreme Court denied a last-minute stay in his execution. Many people believe an innocent man was executed that night – the Twitter hashtag #toomuchdoubt was said to have been trending globally.
Bill C-10, known as the Safe Streets and Communities Act and better known as the Tory tough-on-crime legislation, is now before Parliament.
According to a speech given by Kerry-Lynne Findlay, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and MP for Delta—Richmond East, “the safe streets and communities act fulfills this government’s commitment … to reintroduce law and order legislation to combat crime and terrorism.”
While capital punishment is an extreme example today, Canada outlawed the death penalty in 1976, it’s the idea that Canada is headed down the path of American-style justice that scares certain people.
Since the federal Conservatives gained power in 2006, a thread of tough-on-crime politics has permeated Ottawa. Now that Prime Minister Harper led his party to a majority government in last May’s election, his party has talked of drastic changes in crime policy, promising tough-on-crime legislation in the first 100 days of the new session of parliament.
As committed to the tough-on-crime approach the Tories are, there are critics to the legislation. Joe Comartin, the NDP’s justice critic, disagrees with the punitive-mindedness of the Conservative bill. In an interview with The Runner, he said, “if you take the punitive-deterrent approach, you end up incarcerating people for a longer time.
“They learn how to become better criminals and they tend to become more violent criminals as well when they eventually get out,” he said.
Comartin points out that over the last five years, Canada has increased its prison population from about 12,500 people to 15,000, which doesn’t jive with an overall trend of falling crime rates nationwide. He attributes this rise in the prison population to the previous crime legislation that the Conservatives have introduced since taking power in 2006.
Mike Larsen, Kwantlen criminology professor and co-managing editor of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, sees this as formulated political policy. He sees the Conservative approach to crime policy as neglecting a wide net of research that mostly refutes the need to get tough on crime.
This policy, he argues, is completely detached from reality and the evidence base surrounding responsible and effective solutions to social problems.
“It’s disastrous economically, it’s disastrous in terms of its impact to communities,” he said.
He attributes the Conservative’s crime legislation apparent popularity to a certain brand of political populism that appeals to society’s emotions, but doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as a real answer to crime.
“There is what I would say legitimate concerns and dissatisfaction with the justice system,” he said.
He said that it then becomes easy for politicians to see this sentiment as a political opportunity.
“And as a politician offering tough on crime as a solution is political cache–it’s very easy to do.
“It seems almost taken for granted that there’s a certain legitimacy to saying ‘we have a problem and we need to have tougher punishment and more prisons and so on,’ – it plays into this idea that you are the tough masculine politician doing this,” he said.
Comartin pointed out that all MPs in the House of Commons would like to be able to say that they have the policy that can eradicate crime, that they have the answer to creating a crime-free and safer Canada.
“We all say the same thing, ‘one violent crime is one too many,’” Comartin said.
Larsen argued a tough-on-crime approach doesn’t make a lot of sense. He pointed out that the debate in the United States has shifted away from the traditional American tough-on-crime approach, mostly because it’s an expensive set of policies to operate and is becoming too big a burden for cash-strapped states to fund.
“These things have intuitive traction even though they don’t work,” Larsen said.
He said that this approach is a vote-getter. It mobilizes a specific segment of the political spectrum and it allows politicians to position themselves as political problem solvers. It’s a rhetoric of effectiveness and it’s a rhetoric of political responsibility, he said.
“There’s this lashing out, and its almost kind of an expressive thing, it’s emotionality, it’s the idea that, ‘this we can control, this we can respond to,’” he said.
Comartin said it’s, “very much following the U.S. model that is very much out of date.”
“It’s based on fear, it’s based on ‘our society is collapsing around us and we’ve got to get tough on crime’ – flying completely in the face that our crime statistics show very, very clearly that our crime rates are decreasing,” Comartin said.
In an interview with The Runner, Findlay explained that statistics show a “modest decline,” but in certain regions of the country like Nunavut, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador, and that this legislation is meant to help tackle these crime problems. She also pointed out that there are certain types of crime that have risen as well, like sexual assault, child pornography, firearms and drug offences.
“We’re taking a very targeted approach for the very reason that we want to get at those areas that are actually on the increase and the ones that particularly worry the public the most,” she said.
According to Comartin, the NDP is also concerned with the money that this legislation will cost Canadians. He said that certain parts of the proposed legislation would cause an increase in provincial prison populations. Most of which, he argues, are already at capacity or over capacity and that most provinces can’t afford to expand their prison systems.
According to Comartin, the estimated costs from already-implemented crime legislation since 2006 total about $2.2 billion, but he said that the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates it at around $9 billion-$13 billion. He said that this proposed omnibus bill could cost Canadians an additional $10 billion over the next five years once this bill is fully in place.
Larsen pointed out that lumping these bills together into one omnibus bill, the Conservatives run the risk of losing out on valuable debate for each component bill, as would normally be the case in a piecemeal approach to the legislation.
“You have an evidence-based perspective that’s informed both by morals and ethics but also by a sound research base, its not like it’s pie in the sky research,” he said.
“And then you have this entirely politically oriented criminal justice policy which is coming from the Conservative camp, so debate would almost be a moot point anyways.”
Larsen said that real, reasoned debate has been lost to a war of sound bites, which give equal weight to otherwise unequal arguments.
Findlay said that the parliamentary process ensures that the large bill will see proper debate and second-thought as it passes from the floor to the Committee on Justice and Human Rights.
“That committee’s task is to go through any and all legislation before it, literally clause by clause,” she said.
“That’s going to take a little longer in a comprehensive bill like this than something that’s shorter, obviously, but the process is the same,” she said.