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Tough Justice: Is the Harper agenda a phony war on crime?

Last night CBC’s Sunday Edition hosted a community forum called “Tough Justice: Is the Harper agenda a phony war on crime?”

It drew a full house at the Gladstone Theatre. The first hour consisted of questions and answers posed by Michael Enright to the six panelists. The second hour was questions from the audience.

The panelists included: Michael Jackson (a law professor at UBC), Charles Momy (Canadian Police Association) Heidi Illingsworth (a victims’ rights advocate), Dan Gardner (an Ottawa Citizen columnist, blogger and author of the book Risk), Vince Westwick (Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police), and Kim Pate (a lawyer, professor and executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies).

Several notable Conservative proponents of the tough-on-crime bills were also invited, including the Minister of Justice, but they declined to participate.

Much of the discussion focused on the discrepancy between public perceptions of crime versus actual crime rates. Many Canadians feel crime is a growing problem, despite the fact that the crime rate has been falling for decades.

Dan Gardner suggested that politicians should be addressing the discrepancy between public perceptions and actual crime rates, by telling the truth about what’s happening with crime rates over time. Instead, Conservative politicians are dealing with the discrepancy by “getting tough on crime,” and opposition politicians don’t have the guts to push back. (He also said that ‘getting tough on crime’ is nothing more than a superb marketing slogan devised by American politicians.)

I think it’s like when your kid is crying at night because he’s scared of the monster under his bed. Do you tell him the reassuring truth – that there’s no monster – or do you make a bunch of noise and pretend to kill the monster?

The Conservative government actually nurtures the misconception by trying to convince us that there are monsters under our beds. Despite solid evidence to the contrary, they want us to believe crime is raging out of control. Worse, they intend to spend billions of dollars of our money to protect us from our own imaginations.

Most of the panelists agreed that while the problem of crime in general is exaggerated, there are particular types of crime that are increasing, such as gang-related crime and violence against women. But it would be more effective to address these types of crimes in a targeted way.

Kim Pate pointed out that women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population. She attributes this to cuts in social services and mental health services, which leads to increasing criminalization of the mentally ill, poor and marginalized populations.

Michael Jackson talked about some of the fallacies surrounding incarceration. For example, the whole “Club Fed” myth of what prisons are like. And the fallacy that locking more and more people up for longer and longer periods under harsher and harsher conditions will somehow deter more crime. And the fallacy that if you respect the human rights of prisoners, you take away from the human rights of victims.

Justin Piché, a local criminology student and blogger, asked the panelists how they would invest the $3B that will be spent on new prisons next year. Dan Gardner made an excellent point about government spending being a zero-sum game. Dollars spent on one thing are not available for another. Because of these crime bills, that money will not available for anything you consider more important than prison construction (including tax cuts, if that happens to be your thing, he added).

All in all, it was a very interesting evening, and you can listen to the whole show this Sunday morning at 9:11 on CBC Radio.

6 comments to Tough Justice: Is the Harper agenda a phony war on crime?

  • It’s sad, but it seems that there are consistently lots of votes in middle class paranoia and ‘get tough on crime’ policies.

  • I wish I could have gone!

    One little thing — I was just reading an extensive study about Canadian prison populations that was just published about a month ago, and IT said that the fastest growing prison population is young Aboriginal men. I wonder which is misinformed?


  • XUP

    I’m mentally exhausted from thinking about and getting angry about stuff the Conservative government does. And then I see how they’re once again leading in the polls and I just want to throw up my hands and say, “Okay. I live in a land of dunderheads.” Do you ever feel like that?

  • Fascinating, I wish I’d known! Like XUP, I’m also tired of the Conservative party claptrap, but I’m also heartened by gatherings like this–small battles against the rhetoric.

    Zoom, is the show on at 9:11 or 9am-11am?

    I’ll have to find a radio to listen to it.

    – RG>

  • Milan, that’s the problem. Voters who respond to slogans instead of thinking critically about the issues.

    Good question JM. I believe young Aboriginal males comprise a huge segment of the prison population relative to their numbers in the general population. But it seems likely that women would be the fastest-growing population of prisoners, since there are still relatively few women incarcerated, and the rate would tend to increase more dramatically with such a small denominator. I’m not certain of this, though. I’ll see what I can find out.

    XUP, I DO feel like that. All the time. It’s frustrating. However, that was one of the things I liked best about this forum the other night. I felt like I was surrounded by intelligent, thinking, like-minded people. It was gratifying.

    Grouchy, I should have blogged about it in advance. I only found out from Apt613’s blog a couple of days before the show. My understanding is that it’s on the radio tomorrow from 9:11 to 11:11.

  • i just wanted to chime in and say nice design.