by Craig Jones
Is there substance to the Conservatives’ tough-on-crime agenda, or is it just optics?
Understanding how the crime agenda has come to play a starring role in the current government’s quest for a majority requires a short tour through the recent history of thinking about crime and punishment – and specifically of the gap that has opened between practitioners and social scientists of crime and penology, on the one hand, and the response by populist politicians, on the other. What is interesting about this domain of social policy is that it pits peer-reviewed social scientific evidence against what policymakers viscerally feel compelled to do: to be seen to be “doing something” in an issue area that arouses strong emotions and powerful fears.
The criminal justice system is an accommodating environment for the politics of symbolic action. Survey evidence reveals that people with comparatively little knowledge of how the criminal justice system works – the majority of us – tend to think that it does not serve the public interest, that judges are too lenient, that the threat or experience of punishment successfully deters, that prisons are “club feds” and so forth. By contrast, those on the front line of the criminal justice system – police, judges, lawyers, prosecutors – are less confident that punishment can effect social change of a lasting or substantive kind.
But the government’s crime agenda is not driven by what practitioners think would make the criminal justice system “work better,” improve public safety or expedite the justice process. It is driven by the raw retail politics of penal populism. The government needs to be seen to be doing something in one of the few social policy domains where it thinks Canadians will actually believe that it can change things – and that explains why it has launched a crime agenda that is in conflict with the evidence.
Returning to the “tough on crime” themes in its March 3 Throne Speech, the government intoned the grim music of tougher sentencing for dangerous criminals, ensuring that criminals serve sentences that reflect the severity of their crimes, fairness to victims of crime, more powers to police, etc. – all of which had died on the order paper with prorogation. Announcements since the Throne Speech have included amendments to the Youth Criminal Justice Act and changes to the International Transfer of Offenders Act. A recurring talking point states that for the last 40 years – which includes two Mulroney Progressive Conservative majorities – Canadian governments have gone soft on crime, though this does not explain why rates and severity of crime have been trending downward since 1991.
Taken as a whole, it is a large and ambitious agenda and, judged by the unwillingness of the opposition to risk an election on it, it is likely to be passed in its entirety. The fiscal costs are, as of this writing, unknown but presumed to be substantial. But it provokes this question: how much crime reduction can be purchased, at any price, in a context of already declining crime rates?