Friday, January 13, 2006

Witness protection

I promised earlier this week to take a look at the NDP platform to point out issues where the Dippers set themselves apart from the other two main parties. Today, I'll start that effort with a look at the NDP's promise to ensure the expandsion of Canada's witness protection program.

The NDP has committed to:
Strengthen the RCMP’s Federal Witness Protection and Support Programs. With additional support, the program will encourage witnesses to step forward to put violent offenders behind bars. Such support is necessary to provide the security witnesses and victims need to see cases through the justice system effectively and secure convictions of violent offenders.
In contrast, the Cons' issue page on crime deals mostly with more severe policies toward those convicted of crimes, and doesn't even mention witnesses. The Libs' platform (at p. 63) briefly mentions witnesses, but only with regard to a past reform involving the act of testifying, not with respect to protecting witnesses outside the courtroom.

The NDP's promise fits neatly into Layton's debate commitment to get "tough on crime, (and) tougher on the causes of crime". It's obvious how the promise will get tough on crime itself, in that one would expect more actual crimes to be prosecuted based on witnesses stepping forward and remaining willing to testify. But perhaps more significant, if also more subtle, is the potential effect on the causes of crime.

Keep in mind the old quote that "(t)he only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" - then consider the incentives involved in a citizen making an effort to stop crime (and particularly gang activity). At the moment, it should be beyond dispute that gangs have managed to acquire ever-increasing amounts of control in many areas of Canada, and that such control is based at least in part on fear within the community that any attempt to speak out against the gang will lead to retribution. Putting more officers on the street may help somewhat, but there's only so much added patrolling can do when it only takes one moment for a person to be silenced permanently.

The problem is doubly clear when it comes to gang members who want to end their association with the gang, and might be willing to help the police if there was any chance of living to tell the tale. CBC reported recently on one ex-gang member who died just a week before his release from prison. While the Witness Protection Program may not have covered him in particular, the message that any attempt to act against a gang will be met with violence surely presents a strong incentive for gang members to maintain their affiliation rather than trying to make a change for the better.

As long as potential witnesses perceive that their reporting crime in general, and gang crime in particular, will be more likely to result in personal harm than any real good, it's highly unlikely that crimes will be reported, or that witnesses will come forward when needed to convict precisely the high-ranking gang members who pose the greatest threat. On the flip side, when the government makes a public statement of its commitment to ensuring that a person willing to come forward will be protected against retribution, then it becomes more likely that citizens will react to crime by reporting it and helping to prosecute the guilty party.

The NDP is the only party whose platform includes a necessary step to help both prosecute actual crimes, and to help set a community deterrent to crime once it's known that intimidation tactics will be less effective. While the Libs claim they've done everything that needs to be done on the issue, and the Cons pretend that higher sentences can be equated with better law enforcement, only the NDP has recognized the need to make sure that criminal acts are reported and prosecuted - and that the citizens who take those steps will stay safe in the process.

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