"Stephen Harper's crime strategy relies on things to happen before we do anything about it and I believe that that's wrong. I believe in working with local governments and local community groups and local police officers to tackle crime before it happens".
To substantiate this claim, Layton and the NDP put forward a three pillar plan focussing of "prevention", "protection" and "prosecution", with specific initiatives outlined to meet these broader objectives. Below, I will list the measures proposed in the NDP's 2011 election platform released this past Sunday, followed by comments and questions I have about this plan.
"We will ensure that communities have the resources they need to invest in crime prevention programs, particularly those targeting youth, by increasing federal support to crime prevention initiatives from $65 million to $100 million per year" (p. 16).
If we know that incarceration is ineffective, the objective should be to shift resources away from the prison system towards approaches that produce significant returns on social investment. Preventing victimization in the first place and the chain of events that lead to a person being criminalized and sent to prison is one approach that does just this as it's been shown that for every $1 spent on prevention, taxpayers save $7 that would be spent when someone is incarcerated (Waller, 2006). While a $100 million investment is a slight improvement, it will not go a long way in supporting the robust national prevention strategy the NDP wants to be in place. The NDP needs to be asked why it hasn't put more dollars behind its promise of prevention.
"We will work with the provinces, territories, and First Nations communities to provide stable, multi-year funding to eventually put at least 2,500 new police officers on the streets, and keep them there permanently" (p. 16).
While common sense tells us that putting more boots on the ground would help to prevent 'crime' in our communities, those who advocate for such measures are not acknowledging the fact that many who come into conflict with the law often face a number of challenges related to employment, housing, health, mental health and other issues. Although the NDP has traditionally addressed these broader socio-economic issues in their platforms and politicking more generally, one wonders why this doesn't translate into their penal policy platform. Police officers are often not trained enough to address the social issues they are called upon to deal with. As such, perhaps resources could be better spent on hiring social workers to accompany police officers to help them address the complex issues they face on a daily basis and to meet the needs of the citizens they serve.
"We will give parents, teachers and police more tools to protect our children by making gang recruiting illegal, and establishing a comprehensive Correctional Anti-Gang Strategy to ensure that prisons do not serve as "crime schools" to train gang-involved offenders" (p. 16).
Although making gang recruiting illegal may sound like a good idea, given that broad definition of what constitutes a gang in the Criminal Code of Canada, where will the line be drawn should this bill be implemented? Put differently, what exactly constitutes an attempt to recruit someone into a gang? Without a clear answer to this question, it is highly probable that many people who are or aren't affiliated to gangs could easily find themselves diverted into the penal system.
As for the proposal for the introduction of an anti-gang strategy in prisons so that they don't serve as "crime schools", the NDP is making a promise that simply can't be met. The prison community is a world unto its own and there is no shortage of literature pointing to this universal carceral. The only thing that such a reform would offer is greater legitimacy for the use of imprisonment, an approach that is costly, ineffective and unjust by virtue of the composition of those who are in there. If you're going to do anything to break the cycle of criminalization and incarceration, offering more opportunities for education (read Duguid, 2000), that would provide individuals with a way out of gangs through the accumulation of knowledge, would be more advisable.
"We will create new, stand-alone offences for home invasions and carjackings" (p. 16).
In response to this proposal, which to me appears at first glance to be more cosmetic than a significant addition to the Criminal Code of Canada, I have a number of questions. What is the need for such legislative changes? What are these changes intended to accomplish? How will the victimized and criminalized persons affected be better served by such measures? What underlying issues are not addressed when a discussion on theft is focussed of re-branding acts instead of addressing the factors that contribute to these acts, including poverty? For me these questions must be answered, because I'm not at all sure what such measures, if enacted, would accomplish.
"We will enact, the so-called "Lucky Moose" bill - a law that would allow citizens to detain criminals within "a reasonable amount of time" after a crime is committed" (p. 16).
Other than its populist appeal, does this proposal accomplish anything in terms of enhancing safety in our communities? I'm not sure what additional legitimacy for vigilanteism will accomplish other than opening up new spaces for the encroachment of civil liberties based on the best judgements of individuals not trained to decide whether someone may have been in conflict with the law and requires temporary detention. Perhaps more importantly, such measures implicitly encourage people to take risks that could put their safety in jeopardy. Not exactly a recipe for 'public safety'.
"We will ensure that appropriate care, treatment, and interventions are available for mentally ill offenders in prison, as recommended by the Correctional Investigator of Canada" (p. 16).
We have a long history of Royal Commissions, task forces and other reviews that have assessed our prisons. On one hand, the reports produced reveal that the prison is unable to deliver on its promises other than those of punishment and control. On the other hand, the remedy for the problems in our prisons has been to 'reform' our prisons, to invest more resources in their administration and offer new programs to prisoners in pursuit of "rehabilitation", "treatment" and "care".
That we, as a society, prefer to perpetuate the failed experiment of imprisonment instead of asking ourselves how things could otherwise be done differently is a dubious legacy. That the incarceration of the mentally ill, the creation of "safe jails" for those addicted to drugs (read 14 February article by the Calgary Herald) and the the like are seen as acceptable solutions to complex issues illustrates the degree in which criminalization and punishment is coming to replace social welfare apparatuses in this country - a trend that even the NDP is now legitimating.
Given the track record of prisons, where prisoners who succeed arguably do so in spite of the system not because of it, or prisoners walk out worse than they came in, if at all (watch the Fifth Estate), the prison solution ought to be seen as no solution at all. We can't imprison our way out of the challenges we face, no matter how much lipstick we apply to the carceral pig.
A $100 million investment in prevention, 2,500 new police officers, and a series of designer legislative proposals is hardly a game changer when billions of dollars are being spent on expanding prisons across the country to warehouse those we would rather forget about than help.