Canada at a Crossroads
In a context where the economic, political and social costs of increasing our reliance on incarceration are widely known, federal and provincial-territorial governments are in the process of establishing 10,600 new prison spaces with an infrastructure cost of $3.6 billion and rising (note: with the April 11th announcement of funding for the South West Detention Centre in Windsor, Ontario this tab not sits at just under $4 billion). These expenditures do not account for the costs of managing and operating these spaces, which each cost the provinces and territories an average of $59,057 and the federal government close to $118,000 every year according to 2008- 2009 figures compiled by Statistics Canada.
That this money is being spent when research has shown that increasing the use of imprisonment has a negligible impact on ‘crime’ unless pursued to a point where any short-term benefit derived is far outweighed by the long-term consequences is dubious, particularly when it has been shown that for every $1 spent on prevention, taxpayers save $7 that is spent when someone is incarcerated.
That our prisons have become dumping grounds for those suffering from addictions to drugs and mental illnesses, the poor, colonized Aboriginal peoples and other marginalized groups is a legacy no Canadian should be proud to call their own. That we allocate almost 100 times more money to our prisons than for victims at the federal level is doubly shameful.
The road we are taking is not a path to enhanced safety in our communities. It is an approach that will lead to more victimization in the name of victims, communities eviscerated of social services in the name of public safety, and a deepening of inequality in Canadian society in the name of justice. And worst of all, this approach will not work.
While it would be easy to attribute responsibility to the Conservatives, the truth of the matter is that there are other factors in play and that in a minority government situation it takes two to tango. As such, there is plenty of blame to go around. This is made evident in the election platforms put forward by all major political parties who have left space – to a greater or lesser extent – for the infliction of pain via imprisonment. Those who aspire to represent us in office do this while spending more time calling each other names (e.g. ‘soft on crime’, ‘dumb on crime’, etc...) and asserting their own ‘tough on crime’ credentials than engaging in meaningful dialogue about what it means to be safe and how these aspirations can be realized.
With the 41st Parliament of Canada set to begin we are again at a crossroads, with the opportunity to rethink what is ‘crime’, how we can prevent it, and how we can meet the needs of those impacted by it. It is an opportunity that should be taken up not only by the next federal government and their provincial-territorial counterparts, but also individuals and groups who represent the diverse social fabric of this country and have a stake in meeting this challenge head on.
Building safe communities cannot simply be left to the police, lawyers, judges, prison and parole officials, and certainly not to the politicians. As citizens, both in name and/or in spirit, we must assume our civic responsibilities and recommit ourselves to building the neighbourhoods in which we want to live.
A National Conversation
As it stands, our approach to addressing the conflicts and harms in our communities that we call ‘crime’ is woefully simplistic given the complexities of the challenges we face. And as a consequence, the needs that are engendered often go unmet, leaving a legacy of trauma that far too many of us live with on a daily basis. This is wrong.
Irrespective of whether the rate of ‘crime’ – reported or unreported – is going up, down, or remains stable, no is disputing whether or not something should be done. What the focus of a national conversation should be is on how scarce resources can be allocated to prevent ‘crime’, and best meet the needs of the victimized and criminalized. Whether supported by a new federal government or not, we need a public forum to work towards achieving these objectives in a manner where all related issues and policy options are put on the table for democratic debate.
This discussion could be guided by a number of substantive questions related to effectiveness (e.g. Is there evidence that the measures proposed will work?), fairness (e.g. Do the measures proposed respect the human rights and meet the needs of all affected parties?), and value-for-money (e.g. What is the social return on investment of the measures proposed and is their implementation warranted?), among others.
For such an initiative to serve its stated purpose, a number of procedural principles would have to be in place. If the goal is to generate ideas on how to conceptualize and respond to ‘crime’ in a manner that is inclusive, the forum must operate in a way that reflects this objective in its own practice by being open to all who wish to submit testimony, evidence and proposals in various forms of expression, not simply policy briefs and the standard oral presentation.
Provisions would also need to be made to ensure that as many Canadians who wish to participate can, which would require a mechanism to allow for involvement from a distance. Open access and transparency would also be central to such a forum, with all submissions, hearings, as well as reports and related background documents made available to the public to foster further discussion and debate.
Towards Safer Communities
This brief overview of a proposal for a national conversation on ‘crime’, prevention, and meeting the needs of the victimized and criminalized is intended to spark a broader discussion on how we can work towards safer communities. It is not intended to set the terms of the debate, but to provide an idea of what such a forum could look like in the hopes that others will provide their input and bring us closer to having this much needed broad-based discussion.
The success of such an initiative, if it is to get off the ground, depends on a number of things including adequate representation of stakeholders, facilitators that are perceived to be credible, the availability of resources to support the process and above all, the will amongst interested individuals and groups to take the necessary time to engage in meaningful conversations about these important issues.
There are also many pitfalls that could be encountered. For instance, should such a national conversation be facilitated by governments, it is possible that the process would be poisoned by political grandstanding, and the recommendations produced and adopted would not result in fundamental change or safer communities. On the other hand, a national conversation facilitated independently of governments may not receive the attention or recognition deserved from decision makers and the public more broadly as such a forum is not well suited to those who wish to take ‘immediate action’.
At the same time, I would argue that should such a national conversation not take place we will not be any closer to preventing ‘crimes’ or meeting the needs of those who are impacted by them when they do occur. With much to be gained and a lot to lose, we need to get to work.