Sunday, January 28, 2007

Anything but soft

Peter McKnight takes on the pervasive "soft on crime" myth, pointing out that contrary to the Cons' rhetoric in particular, Canada actually jails significantly more of its citizens than most countries:
(A) review of the evidence reveals that Canada is not, and never has been, soft on crime, that the putative laxity of the criminal justice system is perhaps the most persistent, pervasive and pernicious myth in Canadian society today...

Canada is, and always has been, far tougher on crime than most industrialized democracies. While we have always had a love affair with jailing people, incarceration rates rose so dramatically in the latter part of the 20th century that Canada became the second- or third-most enthusiastic jailer among western nations.

Consequently, in 1996, Parliament passed the Sentencing Reform Act, which was aimed at bringing our incarceration rate in line with other western countries. According to Statistics Canada, the act proved somewhat successful in achieving its aim, as the incarceration rate fell in the latter half of the 1990s, and then stabilized in the early part of this century at about 130 people per 100,000, where it remains today.

While this represents an improvement over the past, Canada's rate is still higher than most European countries'. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College, which monitors prison populations, the median incarceration rate for western Europe is 91 people per 100,000, for northern Europe, 85 per 100,000, and for southern Europe, 80 per 100,000.

Similarly, the median for countries in Oceania (Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific islands) is 111, and for south central and southeastern Asia, the median is 94. Even South American countries, some of which have serious drug problems and many of which have unenviable human rights records, are only a little more enthusiastic jailers than Canada, with a median rate of 152...

The country with the highest rate should come as no surprise: The United States jails an astonishing 714 of its citizens per 100,000. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were battling for jailing supremacy, but the U.S. solidified its position atop the world thanks to the tough on crime wave that rolled over the country in the 1980s and '90s. This was primarily a result of Americans erroneously believing that the U.S. was soft on crime, but the Americans have apparently recognized their mistake, as I discuss below.

Until recently, though, the U.S. lagged behind one other western country in the imprisonment of youth. And the country? None other than kinder, gentler Canada, which, until the enactment of the Youth Criminal Justice Act in 2003, imprisoned significantly more children per capita than the U.S., making us the top jailer of children in the western world. If Vic Toews or Rob Nicholson doesn't believe this, he need only look at the Department of Justice website, which states exactly that...

Interestingly though, as we head for the cliff (of increased use of mandatory sentencing), the U.S. seems to have recognized the error of its ways. Many states are abandoning mandatory sentencing, which greatly increased the U.S. prison population, and as Chris Suellentrop explained in a fascinating article in the New York Times Magazine, there is now impressive bipartisan support for the federal Second Chance Act, which emphasizes rehabilitation and reintegration over punishment.
The article doesn't go on to mention the added costs associated with indiscriminate incarceration. But those numbers have already surfaced with respect to the Cons' sentencing plans, and it shouldn't be too difficult to see how the costs could similarly be changed based on additional variations in sentencing policy.

Meanwhile, those massive costs need to be weighed against both the fact (pointed out by McKnight) that Canada's current system already results in an unusually high incarceration rate, and the lack of any apparent connection between higher sentences and crime reduction in any event. Based on that comparison, it becomes all the more clear that we should indeed be looking toward more flexible and effective sentencing options, not trying to force our justice system to turn a blind eye to differences between offences and offenders.

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