Just hours before he passed away on Christmas Eve, Edward Greenspan, arguably Canada’s best-known criminal defence lawyer, submitted this critique of the Harper government’s “tough-on-crime” rhetoric (co-written with Anthony Doob) to the National Post:
“All convicted criminals belong behind bars.”
We know of no person knowledgeable about criminal justice in any democratic society who has ever proposed imprisonment for all convicted offenders. But earlier this month, Canada’s Public Safety Minister, Steven Blaney, who oversees our penitentiaries, bluntly told Parliament that “Our Conservative government believes that convicted criminals belong behind bars.” No qualifications, no exceptions.
An opposition MP understandably replied, “Mr. Speaker, that is scary to hear.” Scary? It’s more than scary. It is hard to imagine such a statement being made by someone who supposedly has knowledge about crime and the criminal justice system.
Consider this example: If we take the Public Safety Minister at his word, his government believes that all those guilty of driving with blood alcohol levels even slightly above the legal limit, not speeding and not involving an accident, belong behind bars: Go directly to jail, no need to consider anything else. Currently, only 8% of all offenders — and fewer than 2% of all young women — are imprisoned for this offence. Do the Tories propose locking up the 92% who are dealt with through other means?
Some believe that offenders learn from imprisonment that “crime does not pay.” This, too, is wrong. Published research — some of it Canadian and produced by the federal government — demonstrates that imprisonment, if anything, increases the likelihood of reoffending. For example, a recent study of 10,000 Florida inmates released from prison demonstrated that they were more likely subsequently to reoffend (47% reoffended in 3 years) than an almost perfectly equivalent group of offenders who were lucky enough to be sentenced to probation (37% reoffended).
Crime and punishment issues are far too complex and far too serious to allow the national debate to be dominated by dishonest platforms and slogans. False promises are often convincing. Whether those offering them are dishonest or ignorant matters little: Conservative crime policies will not make Canadians safer.