Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Making it worse -- we need to focus on crime prevention
The high cost of Conservative government crime legislation is a subject that has come up a number of times in recent weeks. It is especially topical given the imminent release of the budget officer's report.
The provinces have lead responsibility under our Constitution for the programs and funding which can prevent crime or intervene before anti-social activities result in criminal laws being broken. Education, women's shelters, family counselling, drug intervention and policing are all provincial jurisdictions.
The best way to keep down the bill for proper enforcement of Canada's criminal laws is to work harder at preventing crimes by supporting youth and families and by improving police presence. These initiatives are provincial jurisdiction. The city has an important role to play, with programs such as Crime Prevention Ottawa.
Is crime so rampant in Canada that proper enforcement of our criminal laws means the jails will quickly fill up? That seems to be the assumption of Parliament's budget officer.
In my area of Vanier, community leaders and community groups are working hard to prevent crime and to intervene before anti-social activity becomes criminal. To have appropriate anti-crime legislation and to require the courts to enforce the law is to support the work of those groups. It should make things better, not worse.
The law of unintended consequences is one that policy makers should never forget, but just in case anyone needs reminding, we recommend a recent article in the journal Science.
The article, based on Canadian research, suggests that the efforts of countries like our own to manage responsibly fish and wildlife populations might in the end cause more harm than good. According to biology professor John Fryxell of the University of Guelph, we might be unwittingly promoting sharp declines and even extinctions among fish and animal species -- just the opposite of what we want to accomplish.
If he's right, then Canada risks repetition of the Atlantic cod disaster in ways we won't see until it's too late. Our intuition will have led us astray.
Fryxell's thinking goes like this: fish and wildlife management fails to account for human behaviour. The officials in charge of setting hunting and fishing limits fail to realize that when people have a lot of success in hunting or fishing, they tell others, and the number of people hunting and fishing in that area climbs sharply. The system is then slow in adjusting quotas, the result of which is a steep decline in the numbers of fish or animals, right under the noses of the managers in charge. While Fryxell's work is with deer and moose, the cod fiasco was another perfect example of the dilemma: Experts were warning of declining cod stocks long before governments reacted. In the end, an entire fishery was shut down, and even now experts are split on how well the cod will recover.
"Everyone is so busy contending with brand new issues as they come along, that I'm not sure there's a commitment to going back and reviewing (older) policies that are in place," Fryxell notes. "But ... that would be a very smart thing to do."
Policy makers call this approach adaptive management. It treats management of every public issue as a hypothesis. This means that a government passes a regulation in the belief -- but not the certain knowledge -- that it will fix or prevent problems, and returns later to study whether the hypothesis turns out to be correct.
Inevitably we have only partial knowledge about the world we live in. All kinds of well-intentioned laws and public measures can have unintended, and sometimes harmful, side-effects. And some measures that feel dangerous may be helpful.
- Laws meant to stop prostitution instead drive it into dark alleys, where the danger to prostitutes and customers alike becomes much greater.
- "Tough-on-crime" legislation fills up our jails by creating longer sentences and reducing a judge's options, but these laws have a poor record of reducing the crime rate.
- Forcing native children to attend residential schools seemed like a great idea at the time. Who would oppose giving kids a good education? Yet the measure tore apart families and caused suicides.
- Needle exchanges for drug users may seem wrong "intuitively" -- how dare the government enable drug use! -- yet such policies actually reduce the spread of disease from dirty needles.
While Fryxell's work is just one study, it does cover 20 years and several countries. It reminds us of the value of asking how many of our laws and policies really deliver the benefits we intend.