Justice Minister Nicholson: Do you really want to control crime?

October 30 2011

Dear Mr. Nicholson,

Like you, I too want our country to be a safe place where criminal victimization is a rare occurrence. However, I have concerns about Bill C-10 which is currently being rushed through Parliament.

Bill C-10 is uninformed by the negative experiences which the USA has had with their own mandatory minimum sentencing laws at the state and federal levels. Your government’s declaration to control crime appears to be without the advice from experts in Canada and abroad who argue that there are more effective solutions than a simplistic “lock ‘em up” response. In your statements to the public, you invoke “victims of crime” as the beneficiaries of the government’s crime bill. It’s difficult to see how your advocacy for  prison solutions will help victims.

By putting people in jail for non-violent crimes like the possession of cannabis plants, the government is exposing these prisoners to criminal value systems, the risk of physical violence, and the prospect that imprisonment will foreclose their chances for social reintegration upon release. Given those risks, are we likely to see law-abiding citizens emerge from Canadian jails?

Sadly, the assumptions behind the laws which the government is about to invoke have never been put to rational or empirical scrutiny. The policies which you advocate blindly assume that the threat of punishment is 1) known to  2) rational offenders who will 3) calculate the costs and benefits of a criminal act and 4) choose not to make criminal decisions. The real world is different from what is envisaged by the forthcoming laws because

  1. few ordinary Canadians know the maximum sentence for any crime except murder, let alone the group to which you refer to as “criminals”;
  2. offenders often make choices in an irrational state of mind caused by alcohol, drugs, desperation, or with brains which are compromised by neurophysiological damage at birth (e.g., fetal alcohol syndrome);
  3. criminal decisions are rational in the minds of some offenders when faced with the alternatives;
  4. criminal choices may be specific to a particular developmental period in a person’s life (e.g, youth crime) and should not mortgage their future with a prison sentence.

Your government’s emphasis on criminal deterrence through punishment will expand the enforcement and corrections bureaucracies at great cost to ordinary Canadians. If asked, most Canadians would prefer to redirect money for jails into education, health care and early childhood intervention.

Crime policies must be guided by research and have an evaluation component built into them. Is your government prepared to have an independent evaluation of the consequences of Bill C-10 in five years to see if crime and rates have been affected? The absence of evaluation makes your government’s declarations to control crime a somewhat hollow and costly objective.

I ask that you stop Bill C-10 and establish an independent commission of diverse citizens and experts to create an evidence-based crime prevention plan for Canada.

John Anderson, PhD
Chair, Criminology Department
Vancouver Island University
Nanaimo, BC V9R 5S5


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