Is this really making us any safer?

April 15, 2015   ·   0 Comments

ALL THE LEGISLATION has been carefully crafted to get votes from a population that sees crime as getting worse every day, applauds “life for a life” in sentencing and favours a return to the hangman’s noose.

But have all the new “tough on crime” laws really done anything more than solidify the Conservatives’ social conservative base and draw votes away from some of those frightened by the dominance of crime on the nightly newscasts?

On the contrary, expert criminologists will tell you that the main  thing harsher penalties for criminal behaviour will do is increase both prison populations and recidivism.

For evidence, all you have to do is look south, to a country that today imprisons more than 700 persons in a population of 100,000, and 2,200 in a black population of that size.

(For a jurisdiction like Dufferin, it would mean that roughly 500 of its 60,000-odd residents would be incarcerated at any given time.)

In Canada, the overall incarceration rate is still relatively modest, at 118 per 100,000 in 2012, but as in the U.S., the rates are much higher for blacks and aboriginals.

And while our current incarceration rate is lower than those in France, the United Kingdom and Australia, it is far above those found in Scandinavia.

Norway offers a particularly interesting case in point. There, despite the highly publicized murderous rampage of Andres Breivik, who took the lives of 77 men, women and children and wound up with the current maximum sentence in Norway of 21 years, that country’s incarceration rate is about 75 per 100,000.

(Although 21 years for mass murder might seem far too short a sentence, Norway’s law does provide for it to be extended in five-year increments in the absence of evidence that the prisoner has been rehabilitated.)

And unlike the prisons of Canada and the U.S., Noway’s are relatively pleasant habitats, lacking bars on the windows and boasting rooms with TV instead of cells.

There, the closest thing to solitary confinement is being restricted to a room with two other inmates.

In Norway, the longstanding objective has been to stress the need for reform and rehabilitation. Incarceration  is seen as a weapon of last resort, and the average sentence is about eight months.

In North America, there’s no doubt that prisons are there for punishment, and rehabilitation is seen as far less important.

How else could you explain the fact that the current federal government has refused to do anything about the fact that today solitary confinement is being used more than ever before, despite the absence of evidence that it does anything more than harden the criminals and cause some of them to commit suicide?

It will be interesting, indeed, to see whether moves to lengthen prison sentences (in part by imposing minimum sentences for some offences) will lead to higher rates of recidivism.

Interestingly, the current rates of recidivism in Norway and the U.S. suggest that here, too, Noway is on the right track.

There, despite the leniency in sentencing and the absence of harsh forms of incarceration, the current rate of recidivism is about 20 per cent, whereas in the U.S., nearly 77 per cent of those released after spending time in prison have been re-arrested for a crime within five years.

And despite having capital punishment in 32 of the 50 states as well as for federal crimes, the crime rates invariably eclipse ours, particularly in large U.S. cities.

In the circumstances, it will be interesting to see whether, in the coming election campaigns,  any of the opposition parties in Ottawa will be willing to take a stand against the current trend toward harsher sentencing and increased imposition of solitary confinement.

Our suspicion is that they all will lack the courage to take such a stand, in the knowledge that the Harper government will portray them as “soft on crime,” and therefore endangering our good, law-abiding citizens.

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