"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Don't get "tough", get results

Alison over at Creekside has a good post on Justice Minister Vic Toews recent town hall meeting on the Conservatives' knuckle-dragging "get tough" approach to crime. I kinda got off on a very long winded roll in the comments, for which I apologize, so I've brought the whole thing over here and added even more long-winded bloggy goodness to my rant.

Politician love the "law and order" issue because they can use anecdotes and scary stories from the newpaper to scare the bejebus out of the voters and smear their opponents ( ie "Paul Martin let Karla Homolka out of prison") They get to strut around and look tough by promising to get the bad guys. They won't be "soft on crime." They won't "allow criminals to sit leisurely in country club prisons" and other bullshit.

If the crime rate goes down, they claim its is because of their "get tough" attitude and policies. If the crime rate goes up it is the fault of their predessors' lax policies and coddling of criminals.

In point of fact it is all mostly bullshit. Sending people to jail for lengthy periods of time for compartively minor crimes such as drug possession, small volume drug dealing, petty theft etc on a first offense tends to turn them into career criminals, whereas very short custodial sentences followed by lengthy probabation with strict conditions (halfway houses, anger-management and substance abuse programs) tend to produce considerably less recidivism and cost less in the long run.

But people want revenge. They want to think the bad guy is gonna suffer and that no one who commits a crime is an actual person with feelings and motivations and thoughts like themselves.
Imagine you're a 20 year old kid who's seen too many crappy movies and you stick up a gas station or a corner store with a kitchen knife while high because your landlord is breathing down your neck and the pogey has run out and you've drank up or smoked what little money you had.

You are irresponsible and have poor impulse control, don't have many job skills and you're fairly lazy. Okay, you're not exactly a paragon of humankind, but should your life essentially be over because you did something stupid?

Because that is what a five year prison sentence is going to mean to a 20 year old. Yes, he will be out of jail in three years, but those three years he spend in the company of hardcore killers and rapists are either going to utter break him - -rob him of what little self-respect and dignity he ever had -- or they are going to harden him, turn him vicious and amoral. He may have gone into prison a stupid kid, but he is going to come out as a hardened criminal.

For the rest of his life he is going to be a con that no one wants to give a job to, who has spent the same amount of time in the close company of the worst people imaginable that other, more fortunate people, spent at university.

Think of how the experience of going to university or college or working your first real job after leaving school and mom and dad behind shaped you. Now imagine that time was spent in Milhaven Pen, trying not to drop the soap in the showers, lifting weights and trying to grow eyes in the back of your head to avoid getting beaten or shanked for looking at somebody the wrong way. Think you'd be the same person?

This is what jackasses like Toews don't get when they talk about the need for "tougher" mandatory sentences and how we should stop "coddling criminals."

When someone commits a serious crime, by all means send them to prison. But lets consider what prisons are versus what they should be. The purpose of a prison should be to reform the criminal, not warehouse them and make sure they meet lots of other crooks and learn new ways to commit crimes. The purpose should be to turn them into productive members of society, not dehumanize them, break their spirit and convince them they are scum. The purpose should be to make them realize the damage they have done to other, make them repent for it and ensure they don't commit the same crime ever again - not satisfy some primitive need for vengence on the part of society. It is called "Corrections Canada" not "Punishments Canada"

Most people end up in prison because of a lack of empathy and compassion and intelligence on their part. Is setting up a justice system that exhibits and reinforces those same traits the best way to deal such people? I think not.

Idiotic "get tough" policies like the three strikes rule they have in part of the U.S. or long mandatory minimums tie the hands of judges. Sure, if you have a 45-year-old career criminal with multiple prior convictions for armed robbery, assault, theft etc etc who has been convicted of trying to rob a bank as part of an armed gang -- that guy should probably get a long sentence, say 15 or 20 years. He is a clear menace to society and isn't likely to change his ways, so lets get him off the street. By all means try and reform him, but yeah, he's a recidivist and I'll admit he's pretty much had his chance to reform and it just isn't going to happen at this stage of his life.

Now imagine its a 25 year old who got talked into being the getaway driver in the same robbery - let's say the first guy was his uncle who partly raised him or something - and his two prior convictions are for theft (shoplifting as a 18 year old) and assault (a bar fight when he was 20 with some snotty frat boy who's dad played golf with the DA). With a mandatory minimum or a three strikes law, this kid could be going away until he's middle aged. Even if the judge wants to go easier on him, he can't: the law says the minimum sentence is X years, so X years is what he gets. It might as well be life, because this kid isn't coming back from prison. A harder, more cynical, more predatory, more vicious person with the same name and lots of connections from his ten or twenty years in jail is going to be coming out.

Now, imagine the person in the second instance isn't 25, but 17. Under the old young offenders act, he'd do some time in a reformatory and lots of probation and counselling etc etc. He might get his shit together and turn into a halfway decent person and contribute to society. Or we could take the old Reform Party "spare the rod and spoil the child" approach and send him to Milhaven for four to eight years and let his bunkmates change his name to "Porkchop". He sure as hell won't shoplift again, and if he does get out alive it will be to the gang that kept him alive in prison that he will owe his loyalty. The rest of us are going to be the people who sent him to jail, the enemy. No, he won't shoplift, he'll be after bigger game. He will have learned in prison that its kill or be killed, that the big fish eat the little fish and the only sin is getting caught. There won't be job waiting for him. Everyone he knows will be a con. What are the chances of his turning his life around? Especially since society doesn't want to "coddle" him by providing any kind of namby pamby counselling for anger management or substance abuse or poor impulse control. Society will be paying to keep him in prison and/or protect itself from him when he's out for the rest of his miserable life.

That's not getting tough on crime, that's making sure that crime will get tough on us. Imagine what is going to happen in U.S. when the million or so young men who were sent to prison on mandatory minimums for two, three, five - even ten years on drug charges start to get out. Mandatory minimums may well have created a massive underclass in the U.S. that will be around for generation, possibly forever if the laws stay the same. No wonder prison construction and private security are booming industries, even with the crime rate falling.

Short version of this post: Adopting a "get tough" approach to criminal justice is stupid, vindictive and counterproductive. At best, it is just political posturing and at worst a societal disaster.

Addendum: Jacobs Super Patent Brain Thoughts is evidently on a similar wavelength here

Further ripples in the blog pond at the Galloping Beaver, which have been amplified by the original source over at Creekside


Dave said...

Great post, Rev. When I can get back on INMARSAT this afternoon, I'm going to update mine with a link to you.

Laura said...

I second that. Great post. I especially like the stuff on minimum manditory sentences. You really nailed the moral and practical problem with them.

Alison said...

Really well done, Rev.
And please do "clog" up the comments at Creekside as much and as often as you like.

This is such a difficult subject.
As a society, we haven't even sorted out whether prison is about recovery, revenge, retribution, or an agent of deterrent.

Regardless, Toews et al are not interested in these questions at all - they just want to win.

btw Toews isn't all bad. He championed natives having their own courts in Manitoba, back in the day.