Saturday, May 19, 2012

There is a respectable argument that crime can be deterred through punishment

There is a respectable argument that crime can be deterred through punishment. Empirical evidence demonstrating a deterrent effect does exist. Such evidence is hard to interpret and tends to show some types of crime (impaired driving, white collar crime) is more amenable to deterrence than others (sexual assaults). Most criminologists would suggest a package of deterrence, together with crime prevention and treatment of those with mental health issues is the most effective approach to crime prevention but deterrence is a legitimate part of an overall strategy.

The current federal government emphasizes deterrence in its public statements about crime. Legislation has names like the Truth in Sentencing Act, the Safe Streets and Communities Act and the Tackling Violent Crime Act. Deterrence is the policy adopted by the government. The federal government claims stern action is needed because for the last 20 years the criminal justice system has "worked for criminals, not victims" and ordinary Canadians feel vulnerable.

There question is not what does the federal government say about crime but rather what it does about crime.

Assume there is a genuine intention to deter crime. This suggests that more serious crime requires more serious deterrence. So child abuse should be punished more seriously than shoplifting. A genuine effort to deter crime would involve creating a system where crime is punished in accordance with its seriousness and criminals were punished in a measured and sensible way.

Unfortunately that is not what is happening. Piecemeal amendments to the criminal law are making an already incoherent system worse. A student who grows six marijuana plants in her rented apartment to share with friends faces a mandatory minimum sentence of nine months in prison. Meanwhile, assaults have no mandatory minimum sentences. The structure of sentencing, far from ranking crimes by seriousness or injury to others, becomes almost random and certainly arbitrary (why six plants merits lengthy prison but five does not? and who is harmed by someone growing six marijuana plants?).

Pointless changes to the law are made for no obvious reason other than an attempt to gain media attention. So a private members bill to criminalize the wearing of masks at a riot is promoted and supported by the federal government ignoring the fact such a law ALREADY exists. The Minister of Justice demands that boards reviewing the release of those found not guilty because of mental illness make public safety a primary concern without acknowledging such has always been a statutory underpinning of review boards. Prison farms, which provided food for prisons and were a proven source of rehabilitation have been closed. New legislation imposes a longer wait-time before persons can request a pardon and bars those convicted of serious crimes from ever obtaining a pardon. The change does not deter crime or do more that add petty humiliation to those who have ALREADY been punished for their crimes.

The problem is the federal government has used the criminal law as a way to garner press without giving it the close attention it really needs.

However, the federal government has said its measure to date are only the beginning of a massive overhaul of the criminal justice system. Such could be a good thing. If the system is entirely revamped to rank crime and punishment in a sensible coherent fashion then the federal government might end up with a valuable accomplishment.


Anonymous said...

But they have already demonstrated they are NOT going to do this in a sensible or coherent fashion. Also, since they are refusing to even really consider rehabilitation, and put their entire focus on deterrence, it is highly unlikely they are going to accomplish anything positive. They will, however, appeal greatly to those who desire vengeance, even though most of those people are not the actual victims of crime.

I have dealth with a number of offenders and there are a number of common characteristics. One is that most of them were victims of crime long before they were criminals - at least with respect to the violent criminals. If this government truly cared about the victims of crime they would look at measures to directly assist them instead of measure that exact vengeance against the perpetrators.

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