Thursday, May 13, 2010
Worse than their bite
In 2006, author Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece for New Yorker magazine that opened with the story of a horrifying attack on an Ottawa toddler by three rampaging pit bulls. Five days after the dogs jumped a fence, chased down and injured young Jayden Clairoux and his father as they walked home from a west-end daycare, the Ontario government announced the province would join other jurisdictions and ban pit bulls.
Gladwell, who grew up in small-town southern Ontario and has developed an international reputation as an author, public speaker and pop sociologist, used the story of the Ottawa dog attack and the subsequent provincial ban as a jumping-off point for a look at the controversial law enforcement tool of racial profiling. The story, called "Troublemakers," was subtitled: "What pit bulls can teach us about profiling."
What dogs such as Jada, who attacked little Jayden, or Ontario's most notorious pit bull, Bandit, who was euthanized earlier this year after a seven-year legal battle involving the Toronto Humane Society, can teach us, according to Gladwell, is that profiling does not protect us the way many assume it will. It is true that many pit bulls are a dangerous menace and banning the breed should protect the public from them, but not all fatal dog attacks are by pit bulls. People are also bitten and seriously injured by huskies, German shepherds, Chow Chows, Akitas and more. And the breeds that are most aggressive change over time, which suggests factors other than the breed contribute to making dogs attack, something a breed ban does not address.
"Because we don't know which dog will bite someone or who will have a heart attack or which drivers will get in an accident, we can make predictions only by generalizing ... Another word for generalization, though, is 'stereotype,' and stereotypes are not usually desirable dimensions of our decision-making lives," Gladwell wrote.
But the biggest lesson of pit-bull bans is that they appear to solve a problem without really solving it. There is a lesson here for politicians who push law-and-order agendas.
As pressure mounts on the provincial government to lift the ban on pit bulls by opponents who say it has led to the unwarranted deaths of hundreds of dogs, but has not reduced the number of dog attacks, Ontario's experiment with canine profiling can teach us other law enforcement lessons -- timely ones, given the tough-on-crime agenda being played out at rapid pace by the federal government. For many of the same reasons that pit-bull bans don't reduce the number of vicious dog attacks, other broad-stroke law enforcement tools based on rigid generalities don't reduce crime.
What pit bulls can teach us about getting tough on crime is that whacking it with a blunt object -- such as mandatory minimum sentences -- may sound effective and appeal to certain constituents, but it is less effective than evidence-based, more finely tuned tools. A good example is the difference between the blunt tool of mandatory minimum sentences and judicial discretion in sentencing -- letting a judge determine the appropriate sentence based on evidence.
The unintended consequences of blunt law enforcement tools are formidable. So-called "tough-on-crime" laws will result in more people spending more time in jail, which will cost taxpayers multi-billions of dollars, and there is scant evidence that the laws will reduce crime. What is more, in some cases such laws produce a blatantly unfair outcome that is more likely to create more crime than to prevent it.
Some of the same kind of measures Stephen Harper's government is now introducing, ones that lengthen sentences and make it harder for inmates to get parole, have resulted in such a steep increase in the number of people in prisons in the U.S., that many states are stepping away from tough-on-crime policies.
Gladwell's piece argued that generalizing about which dogs are most likely to attack by banning a particular breed doesn't achieve its goal: to reduce dog attacks. What it does accomplish is allowing politicians to look like they are tackling the problem of aggressive and dangerous dogs. But along with that political capital come unintended consequences. Blanket bans result in the euthanization of dogs, hundreds in Ontario alone since the ban was put in place, some that are not dangerous and unlikely to ever be.
That may be a price people are willing to pay if it means attacks like the one against Jayden are prevented. But bans have not accomplished their goal of reducing dog attacks. They also tend to give people a false sense of security -- that you can tell dangerous dogs by their breed and that, therefore, other dogs are not dangerous, despite outward appearances.
What does this tell us about crime? That intelligent, evidence-based decisions about punishment make more sense than generalities based on assumptions and stereotypes. Depriving judges of the power to determine sentences based on evidence and individual circumstances, and implementing instead mandatory minimum sentencing laws, makes about as much sense as banning all dogs that fit a profile.