Tough on crime? Smart on crime?

During the 1980s, we saw many news items out of the United States around judges dismissing criminal charges on the grounds of human and constitutional rights violations. Many of these cases before the courts involved serious charges carrying substantial penalties. The din grew louder as media attention focused on what seemed an increasing number of incidents where potentially guilty parties walked free. However, one retired American judge whose credentials I failed to note at the time pointed out that if all concerned with the pursuit of justice, in particular police officers and prosecuting attorneys, did their jobs properly then these circumstances would not arise as frequently.
Perhaps the American ‘tough on crime’ impetus into the 1990s was in part a backlash to what were often seen as miscarriages. Federal and state governments became intent on correcting flaws in a system that too often appeared to favour the guilty. Prison populations grew, new facilities were built, and some jurisdictions privatized their penal systems; California passed its three strikes law in 1994.
Eventually, the United States had the distinction of having 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners.
With a new century came an awareness in the U.S. that this lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality didn’t measure up, and was quite probably doing more harm than good. What was going to happen to all the ex-cons after their release back into the community? Doug Sanders’ January 24, 2004 article in Toronto’s Globe and Mail, “600,000 ex-cons add up to a U.S. headache”, referenced President George Bush’s January 20 State of the Union Address where he remarked on the challenges facing U.S. society by moving that many ex-offenders back onto the streets in just 2004.
With time, governments realized the mounting costs were not offset by measurable benefits. One spokesperson for a southern U.S. State suggested a few years ago that it might be confronting a choice between financing prisons and paying for schools. Still later, California began quietly releasing some prisoners to reduce crowding, and the financial liability on the public purse.
The Washington Post published statistics in September of this year referencing America’s emptying prisons, noting the U.S. federal prison population dropped this year – the first time in decades the number of people behind bars had shrunk. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder highlighted the decline as a breakthrough for criminal justice reform.
The newspaper listed a number of indicators:
The cost of incarceration in the United States is 2010 was $80 billions of dollars.
Growth in the number of prisoners since 1980 was 800%, while the general U.S. population increased by about 33%.
The prison population had declined by 4800 at the end of fiscal 2014, to about 215,000 federal inmates.
The last decline in prison numbers was in 1980.
A further decline of 10,000 prisoners was expected in fiscal 2016, the equivalent of six full federal prisons.
Is it any wonder so many American law makers looked askance at Canada when the current federal government here launched its own tough on crime agenda. Why would we do something that had been tried and failed elsewhere? And not just from the United States are we hearing this. Legislators and law enforcement in Great Britain and Australia echoed the Americans. Others, like the Swedes, were more diplomatic when speaking of their own policies.
Canada’s prison population began to climb in 2007 in spite of falling crime rates. Why do intelligent men and women follow a course they know will meet with failure, and which will be costly to the fabric of our society, financially and socially? Further, these same intelligent men and women continue to ignore what they have before them, pushing forward a program contrary to good governance. Not only that, intent on squeezing budget surpluses out of limited revenue at the expense of programming and oversight, we can look forward to a surfeit of ex-offenders ill prepared to reintegrate successfully into our communities.
Why would intelligent men and women do this? Well, here’s a thought. This has nothing to do with safer communities, restorative justice, social order, or right and wrong. Rather, let’s look at this as pandering to an uninformed and mean-spirited support base by pillorying an easy target.
Thanks to Mssrs. Harper, et al, we’ll pay dearly for this.


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