Monday, May 24, 2010
Tough on crime policies actually make us less safe!
The federal government's recent changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, part of a series of legislative fixes announced in the past month, introduced a number of ideas that are clearly out of step with expert thinking on crime prevention.
Tougher sentences for young offenders, the jailing of teenagers until their trials are over, mandatory minimum jail terms for drug crimes – all were part of a law-and-order agenda introduced by Justice Minister Rob Nicholson over several days in November.
The federal government didn't do itself any favours in terms of the timing of these bills, as they coincided with a newly released report called "Unlocking America" from the Washington-based JFA Institute. The report points out the number of people in U.S. prisons has risen eightfold since 1970, with no significant impact on crime rates.
The idea brought forth by Nicholson that "tough on crime" is clearly the most effective judicial model comes across as ideological sloganeering as opposed to sound policy. This is especially true when juxtaposed with the JFA report's grim findings – including the enormous cost to U.S. society of jailing its 2 million inmates ($100 billion a year).
The most troubling new bill is the one that rolls back progress under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, the 2003 legislation that brought Canada in line with how the western world deals with its youth (unbelievably, until the YCJA, Canada incarcerated its youth at 10 times the rate of its adult population and twice the rate of American youth).
Specifically, the new bill reintroduces the role of punishment as a deterrence and denunciation. This premise, that stiffer, incarceration-heavy sentences will deter others from committing similar offences, represents a definite step backward in thinking and is contrary to the major evidence about youth in conflict with the law and their behaviour.
The concept of deterrence, which proposes that youth will understand and be deterred by the potential consequence of a stiff sentence, is beyond the capability of many youth, and therefore useless as a strategy for community security. Current research on youth brain development shows delays long past adolescence in the area of the brain that understands consequences.
The Star's Andrea Gordon penned an illuminative article on the subject where she reported "the pre-frontal cortex – responsible for executive functions such as judgment, impulse control and decision-making based on assessing consequences – isn't fully formed until the early or mid-20s."
Moreover, a meta-analysis prepared by and for Canada's Department of Justice Research and Statistics division in 2001, found that "restorative justice is a more effective method of improving victim/offender satisfaction, increasing offender compliance with restitution and decreasing the recidivism of offenders when compared to more traditional justice responses."
The U.S. experience is quite instructive, especially as it leads us to the next two pillars of the proposed legislative changes in Canada, the clampdown on drug crime, and the use of mandatory sentences as a deterrent to that crime. The two issues are quite intertwined in the United States, as the War on Drugs and the 1990s phenomenon of "three strikes" laws are both deemed massive and interconnected failures.
A 1997 Harvard Medical study found that jails are overpopulated with non-violent drug offenders: "Mandatory sentencing laws are wasting prison resources on non-violent, low-level offenders and reducing resources available to lock up violent offenders.''
The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice more recently reported that America imprisons more than 1 million non-violent offenders, more than half the country's prison population.
While Canada beats the drum for "law and order," U.S. researchers, legislators and leading newspaper editorials are calling for a major justice-system overhaul as they try to run away from the failed law-and-order experiment south of the border.
Finally, our failure in dealing with youth crime is not due to a lack of punitive sanctions to deter criminal activity.
In fact, the proposed bill amending the YCJA would serve only to overcrowd our youth detention centres once again with minor crimes while depleting court resources such as judges and Crown attorneys needed to deal effectively with the most serious and dangerous criminals. It would, in effect, make us less safe.
With less serious offences, it is important to provide high-risk youth an opportunity for positive change through life skills, life planning, coaching and community restorative processes. We must give youth in conflict with the law a chance to make restitution for their negative behaviour within their community, thereby allowing them to begin the process of reintegration into that community.