Drug Policies to Support Healthy Communities

After reading too many bad arguments in social media on both sides of the drug debate (prohibitionist and anti-prohibitionist), I respectfully propose a few “dialogue guidelines” for these kinds of conversations. Irrespective of their arguments and information used to support them,  the common denominator is that members of both sides want to live in healthy communities.

Progressives and Prohibitionists


Drug Arrest

If Canadians can be roughly divided along a continuum of progressives or prohibitionist sentiments, it’s possible to analyze most arguments along common themes.

By way of illustration, the definition of what constitutes a “drug” is argued by progressives to be problematic itself. They frequently point out that legal substances (alcohol and tobacco) cause far more harm than all criminalized substances combined.

Prohibitionists might counter-argue that this is a logical fallacy (a tu quoque argument), insisting that smokers and drinkers don’t kill each other over turf, nor they are responsible for the slaughter in cartel-ravaged Mexico. But even that argument is flawed because it invokes a faulty comparison.

How can we get past endless, polarized arguments about drugs which are often based on faulty reasoning and begin working towards creating policies which foster healthy communities?

The following guidelines are proposed for encouraging dialogue among stake-holders who hold various perspectives on drug policy.

Policy options for consideration

  1. Recognizing our common humanity, we share a desire to live in healthy communities. Drug control policies which foster healthy communities

a) are characterized by low or non-existent levels of interpersonal violence and predatory property crime;

b) have few or no black markets for contraband commodities;

c) are engaged in reducing demand for tobacco, alcohol and other potentially deadly substances through regulation, education and other non-coercive means;

d) employ practices which reduce or eliminate the profit motive for contraband sales;

e) employ the least restrictive means on personal liberty for drug control.

2. We agree that the rules for responding to the use of psychoactive substances will be based on the results from scientific inquiry, therefore

a) we affirm that science, as a means of knowing the world, is provisional and open to continuing exploration, findings and revision. We agree that

i) anecdotes do not qualify as evidence, no matter how numerous or apparently compelling;

ii) single-finding research outcomes are rarely definitive. Wherever possible, meta-analyses (research outcomes from a wide range of available studies) will inform drug policies;

iii) the funding for scientific research into drugs and their effects will be transparent and self-declared.

b) Where scientific findings differ regarding drugs or their control, attempts will be made to determine disparate findings by using peer review from qualified experts.

i) Where scientific consensus on important policy issues cannot be reached, the principle of “least harm” to individuals and communities will prevail, whenever possible.

c) If asked, participants in drug policy dialogues should be prepared to address the question, “What evidence will I accept to revise my beliefs on drugs and their control?”

  1. The body of science which informs drug policies must

a) include knowledge and perspectives from those most affected by these policies, including but not limited to

i) viewpoints from a range of current drug users, including self-identified addicts;

ii) former drug addicts who have “gone straight”;

iii) “rank and file” peace officers charged with enforcing drug laws;

iv) Crown prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges;

v) provincial and federal correctional staff (community and institutional) who are charged with executing the sentences of courts;

vi) progressive and prohibitionist public activists;

vii) public health agencies, provincial and federal;

viii) peer-reviewed academic research (meta-analyses).

  1. As peace officers, law enforcement agencies have a role in helping to shape healthy communities, therefore:

a) police leaders who give preeminence to research on policing strategies for informing drug policy have a key role in supporting healthy communities;

b) every effort will be made to support new roles for police to contribute to the development and maintenance of healthy communities;

c) peace officers will be professionally rewarded for outcomes which show their contributions to supporting community health in constructive ways.

5. Drug treatment policies and interventions for individuals must be

a) informed by science and “best practices” from around the world, and

b) shared within a professional community with its own criteria for certification of “treatment personnel”;

c) non-coercive with the full consent of participants, and as much as possible, non-stigmatizing;

d) promote abstinence as a desirable but not a necessary goal;

e) allow for interventions which are, but not limited to, opiate maintenance supervised by qualified medical staff;

f) supported by all levels of government;

g) recognize and address the relationship between healthy communities and safe, affordable housing for low income families;

h) publicly promoted through the media by provincial and federal agencies

That’s a start, and the list is by no means exhaustive. I’d like to hear more from others who have a stake in moving drug policies in the direction of creating healthy communities.


The Poverty of Punishment

Jail courtyard

The failure of punishment to deter harmful behaviour is glaringly apparent in the daily choices of tens of thousands of ordinary Canadians.

The claims are familiar: punishing the wrongdoing of others acts as a deterrent. We talk about miscreants “learning their lesson” or “getting their just deserts”, or if not them, the application of pain or discomfort “delivers a message to others” which generally prevents crime – should someone dare contemplate a criminal act. We believe these things based on our experiences and the stories we tell or hear.

So why doesn’t it work?

Punishment requires that unwanted behaviour is prevented from occurring or reoccurring; if the forbidden behaviour is not extinguished, then punishment did not occur. However, we explain recidivism (repeat offending) not so much by the utter failure of punishment, but by the absence of severity, certainty or a swiftness of its application. Punishment only has to be more strategically applied for it to deliver the behavioural changes which it promises. However, since the days when pick-pockets risked death while working the crowds at London’s public executions during the Tudor reign, the evidence is stacked against this shibboleth.

If deterrent effect of punishment is the threat of unpleasant consequences, then we have many thousands of citizens who fail to be punished for their socially irresponsible behaviours. Consider the number of people who willfully engage in one or more risky, life-threatening behaviours:

In all of the above harms, the risks are well-known to the population. But  the prevalence of these behaviours suggests that the consequences (or punishment) is ineffective when it comes in the form of an analogous outcome: lethal or injurious car accidents, cancer, heart disease, sexually transmitted diseases, or addiction.

If the punishment of these common and harmful behaviours does not deter “ordinary” Canadians, why should we expect it to fix “criminals”? Maybe we don’t understand how punishment “works”, or if it works at all.


Solutions to Crime, Part 1: Peacekeeping Canada

110519-N-NY820-218 MANTA, Ecuador (May 19, 2011) Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Courtney Arthur paints a wall at Angelica Flores Zambrano school during a Continuing Promise 2011 community service event. Continuing Promise is a five-month humanitarian assistance mission to the Caribbean, Central and South America. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric C. Tretter/Released)
Photo credit: US Navy "Creative Commons" license http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
Peacekeeping for the Public Good

In my last post, I suggested that there are features shared by the RCMP and the Hells Angels. Both are identifiable organizations or “gangs” which attract young people by offering excitement, camaraderie and the prospect of status and material rewards. Canada can fund its own gang several times larger than our national police force through “incentivized” military service. Done properly, this national organization can draw recruits by appealing to young people’s social and individual needs. Here’s what it can look like…

While students are in Grade 10, they are offered an opportunity to join the military as peacekeepers, provided they satisfactorily complete Grade 12. Volunteers will join “peacekeeping cadets”, showing up on Saturday mornings and at least one evening a week at a designated school or other public facility. They will be provided initial training in first aid, rescue, and survival skills in mock situations. The prospect of becoming full-time members of Peacekeeping Canada (PC) after graduation must be reinforced during their last two years of high school. At about age 15, this opportunity will counteract the short time horizons which are characteristic of many youth in this developmental stage. Above all, their training experiences must be meaningful and led by role models who are competent educators. Once students graduate from high school, they are offered these incentives in exchange for a two-year commitment Peacekeeping Canada:

  • Bi-weekly pay at minimum wage and residency in existing barracks or those which can be renovated or constructed by the first cohorts of peacekeepers.
  • The prospect of earning a two-year “Apprenticeship Diploma” in applied fields such as solar and wind-based power generation, electronics, construction, hazardous waste collection, parks and recreation maintenance, fisheries, forestry, or agriculture, subject to local opportunities.
  • Applied experience as peacekeepers who have as their mandate the protection of the environment, enhancing public space, and other worthwhile projects.
  • Travel to other parts of Canada for public works or for providing assistance in emergencies such as floods and tornadoes.
  • A bonus of $10,000 for completion of the two-year program and paid tuition the first two years of university or a four-year trade program. The second two years of education would be funded with low-interest or interest-free loans. Alternatively, graduates can remain with the Peacekeepers and fulfill leadership and training roles without the requirement to live in residency.

The two-year experience will focus on developing interpersonal skills, cooperative activities with teams and groups, engaging in worthwhile local community activities, health awareness, and physical fitness. Peacekeeping leaders will reinforce the values of cooperation and facilitate supportive communication. A sense of personal responsibility and service to Canada must be a salient feature of recruit’s education and applied training.

The benefits returned by PC would be in the form of lower crime rates, health costs and increased tourism as nation-wide public works improvements add value to Canada’s natural environment and urban spaces. The money earned by the recruit’s labour will be circulated back into local economies rather than being “outsourced” like the practice in many private sector companies.

The logistics of this plan must be addressed, but some general guidelines for implementation could include:

  • Local direction of Peacekeeping Canada’s  public works through provincial boards of directors which include partnerships with the private sector;
  • Continual and ongoing evaluation of the two-year peacekeeping service in terms of implementation and outcome of recruits and benefits to local economies;
  • Funding for Peacekeeping Canada will come from taxing profits made through currency exchanges, much like the “Tobin Tax” as proposed by Noble Laureate James Tobin in 1972 and recently endorsed by Bill Gates.

The cost of Peacekeeping Canada can also be supplemented through hemp farming, manufacturing and sales. That’s Part 2 in a five-part series of ideas for dealing with crime in Canada, forthcoming.

– John

In search of Criminology’s Holy Grail

The disciplines of physics, astronomy and chemistry are rumored on the verge of discovering the “Higgs boson” particle – the essential element upon which the universe is comprised, based on experiments in the Large Hadron Collider. Biology has Charles Darwin and evolutionary theory as the uncontested paradigm to understand all living things, past and present. Current research in criminology is taking on a similar trajectory to identify that which is essential about crime or more specifically, criminality. Is criminology getting close to finding its own Holy Grail?

The paradigmatic shift from sociological to individual accounts of variation in criminal behaviour started with a landmark text by Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi (1990). Boldly titled, A General Theory of Crime, the authors reviewed decades of research and claimed that criminology could not identify its independent variable, mainly because it conflated crime (an event) with criminality (a propensity for antisocial behaviour). The cause of crime was simple: low self-control. Their book was initially scorned by many sociologists who believed that, ultimately, the structure of society drove otherwise good people into criminal behaviour and therefore, studying variance among individuals and their traits was partial at best. Even the wide differences between women and men in their propensities for deviant behaviour was deemed to be the result of “differential socialization” rather than innate differences between sexes. Despite the skeptical reception of A General Theory of Crime, low self-control theory has since stood the test of more than 300 published studies, most of which have lent support to its basic premises (Delisi & Vaughn, 2008).

The individual propensity to commit crime is thought by some to be associated with impulsivity or low self-control (Beaver & Boutwell, 2010; Piquero, Moffitt, & Wright, 2007; Raine et al., 2005). The origins of this trait are the outcome of a parenting style which fails to instill the necessary internal restraints in children before the age of eight. Parents or care-givers must monitor, recognize and punish a child through an explicit disapproval of the offending behaviour (but not corporal punishment). Rather than arguing, as do many sociologists, that certain urban areas characterized by social disorganization and high crime rates will motivate residents to break the law, the alternate thesis is that people with low self-control will self-select into these neighbourhoods; abundant criminal opportunities will be available for those with this attribute (Gibson, Sullivan, Jones, & Piquero, 2010).

The failure to restrain one’s impulses leads to adult crime but also other risk-taking, “analogous behaviours” such as smoking tobacco, heavy drinking, using illicit drugs, early pregnancy, and even a propensity for head injuries as the result of risky behaviour. Low self-control is difficult to ameliorate after adolescent years;  it is an enduring trait across the life-course. Its manifestation depends upon the opportunities which present themselves and most crime is trivial, carries high risks, and involves little planning (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). Low self-control also has the potential to be transmitted from one generation to the next (Boutwell & Beaver, 2010) and its genetic transference is currently being studied  (Ferguson, 2010; Schnupp, Wright, Beaver, Delisi, & Vaughn, 2012).

A recent study by Terrie Moffitt and her associates has tracked almost every child born in in Dunedin, New Zealand from their birth (1972-73) to age 32 (Moffitt et al., 2011). The 1,037 members of this group have been evaluated every two years with health and psychological assessments, reports from the subjects themselves, their parents, and teachers. By age 11, the researchers had an index measure of each child’s level of self-control. Followed into adulthood, those with low self-control fared much more poorly than those with higher levels.

At age 32, those with low self-control had more problems with alcohol and drugs, were more likely to be single parents, have poorer health and more financial problems, and had been convicted for crimes. They were caught within the health and social consequences of decisions made earlier in life: “Adolescents  with low self-control  made  mistakes, such as starting smoking, leaving high school, and having an unplanned  baby, that could ensnare them in lifestyles with lasting ill effects” (Moffitt et al., 2011, p. 2697). The group displaying the greatest problems with impulsivity had “more of every type of mental health problem”  than others in a comparable group (Moffitt, Caspi, Harrington, & Milne, 2002, p. 192).

Ten percent of the cohort males in Moffitt et al.’s sample earned the label “life-course persistent” offenders – those who showed “stable, pervasive and extreme antisocial behaviour  in childhood plus extreme delinquent involvement in adolescence” (Moffitt et al., 2002, p. 197). They accounted for five times their share of the cohort’s violent offences and were more likely than others to display a psychopathic personality profile. This group also carried the highest load of childhood developmental risk factors, clearly demonstrating the relationship between neuropsychological deficits in their early years and socially destructive behaviour in adulthood.

Not surprisingly, people with low self-control contribute to higher costs for society. Hospital care, mental health services, income subsidies, and criminal justice expenses are disproportionately consumed by this group. It follows that society can save tens of millions of dollars by encouraging the development of internal controls in children if policy-makers make it easy – or the default choice – to do what is healthy. These are

so-called  “opt-out” schemes  that  tempt people to eat healthy food, save money, and obey laws by making these the default options that require no effortful self-control. If citizens were obliged to opt out of default health-enhancing programs or payroll-deduction  retirement savings schemes, individuals with low self-control should tend to take the easy option and stay in programs, because opting out requires unappealing  effort and  planning. (Moffitt et al., 2011, p. 2693).

 Lest we be tempted, it is short-sighted to blame parents for personal attributes most often correlated with crime and analogous behaviours. Impulsive behaviour in childhood and adolescence is one manifestation of Conduct Disorder (CD) which overlaps with the legal definitions of “delinquency”. CD is correlated with neuropsychological deficits as a consequence of brain trauma from things like fetal alcohol syndrome, maternal stress in the third trimester, low birth weight, or poor maternal nutrition and/or drug use during pregnancy (Beaver, Vaughn, DeLisi, & Higgins, 2010; Moffitt, 1993; National Crime Prevention Centre, 2011). In their early years, children born with these deficits are much more likely to suffer from Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) which interferes with their ability to learn at the same pace as their non-affected classroom peers. Those children afflicted with CD often pose management problems in the classroom, are isolated by their peers, and end up doing poorly in school. In their early teenage years and without the proper interventions, they generally gravitate towards more serious law-breaking and by their early twenties, have been arrested, convicted and spent time in prison – a pattern that will repeat itself as they age into adulthood. The outliers in this cohort will be responsible for a significantly disproportionate share of violent crime (Denson, DeWall, & Finkel, 2012; Moffitt et al., 2002).

Has criminology found its Holy Grail? While it may be tempting to believe that low self-control is the main “cause of crime”, the theory and research on impulsivity misses a great deal. It has considerable difficulty explaining the motivation for individuals who are otherwise “normal” but use their corporate or government positions to victimize the public as consumers, shareholders, taxpayers, and employees.

The predatory personalities behind the Savings and Loan crisis in the United States (Calavita, Tillman, & Pontell, 1997), the 2001 Enron bankruptcy (Friedrichs, 2004), and the 2008 Wall Street crash (Nguyen & Pontell, 2010) were not forged within the families and neighbourhoods shared by street criminals. These men were cunning enough to risk the fortunes of other people’s money to make themselves wealthy in a relatively unsupervised environment (Prasch, 2012). The crooked activities of corporations reaches deeply into warfare (Chambliss, Michalowski, & Kramer, 2010; Rothe & Ross, 2010; Welch, 2009), including the illegal invasion of Iraq (Kramer & Michalowski, 2006). These are crimes of the power elite. It’s difficult to find explanations for their behaviour which focuses on individual pathologies like low self-control, although there is some recent evidence that these principal actors display the same personalities as do clinical populations of psychopaths (Babiak, Neumann, & Hare, 2010; Bakan, 2004; Ragatz, Fremouw, & Baker, 2012).

Criminology has not yet found an over-arching theory by which to explain the behaviours of those who inflict acts of force or fraud in the pursuit of self-interest, and in so doing, wreak more economic and physical harms than do common street criminals. Only when we have a theory that covers all forms of socially injurious conduct, and not just that which is criminalized by the state, can we lay claim to a “dominant paradigm”.

Our search continues.


Babiak, P., Neumann, C. S., & Hare, R. D. (2010). Corporate Psychopathy: Talking the Walk. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 28(2), 174-193. doi: Doi 10.1002/Bsl.925

Bakan, J. (2004). The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Toronto, Ont.: Penguin.

Beaver, K. M., & Boutwell, B. B. (2010). The Intergenerational Transmission of Low Self-control. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 47(2), 174-209. doi: 10.1177/0022427809357715

Beaver, K. M., Vaughn, M. G., DeLisi, M., & Higgins, G. E. (2010). The biosocial correlates of neuropsychological deficits: results from the national longitudinal study of adolescent health. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 54(6), 878-894. doi: 10.1177/0306624×09345993

Boutwell, B. B., & Beaver, K. M. (2010). The Intergenerational Transmission of Low Self-control. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 47(2), 174-209. doi: 10.1177/0022427809357715

Calavita, K., Tillman, R., & Pontell, H. N. (1997). The savings and loan debacle, financial crime, and the state. Annual Review of Sociology, 23, 19-38.

Chambliss, W. J., Michalowski, R., & Kramer, R. C. (Eds.). (2010). State Crime in the Global Age: Willan Publishing.

Delisi, M., & Vaughn, M. G. (2008). The Gottfredson-Hirschi Critiques Revisited: Reconciling Self-Control Theory, Criminal Careers, and Career Criminals. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 52(5), 520-537.

Denson, T. F., DeWall, C. N., & Finkel, E. J. (2012). Self-Control and Aggression. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(1), 20-25. doi: 10.1177/0963721411429451

Ferguson, C. J. (2010). Genetic Contributions to Antisocial Personality and Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review From an Evolutionary Perspective. Journal of Social Psychology, 150(2), 160-180.

Friedrichs, D. (2004). Enron et al.: Paradigmatic white collar crime cases for the new century. Critical Criminology, 12, 113–132.

Gibson, C. L., Sullivan, C. J., Jones, S., & Piquero, A. R. (2010). “Does It Take a Village?” Assessing Neighborhood Influences on Children’s Self-Control. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 47(1), 31-62. doi: 10.1177/0022427809348903

Gottfredson, M. R., & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kramer, R., & Michalowski, R. (2006). The invasion of Iraq. In R. J. Michalowski & R. C. Kramer (Eds.), State-corporate crime: Wrongdoing at the intersection of business and government. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers.

Moffitt, T. E. (1993). The neuropsychology of conduct disorder. Development and Psychopathology, 5(1-2), 135-151. doi: 10.1017/S0954579400004302

Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., . . . Caspi, A. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1010076108

Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., Harrington, H., & Milne, B. J. (2002). Males on the life-course-persistent and adolescence-limited anti-social pathways: Follow up at age 26 years. Developmental-Psychology and Psychopathology, 14, 179-207.

National Crime Prevention Centre. (2011). Youth At-Risk of Serious and Life-Course Offending: Risk Profiles, Trajectories, and Interventions Research Report: 2011-02. http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/res/cp/res/2011-yar-eng.aspx

Nguyen, T. H., & Pontell, H. N. (2010). Mortgage origination fraud and the global economic crisis: A criminological analysis. Criminology & Public Policy, 9(3), 591-612. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-9133.2010.00653.x

Piquero, A. R., Moffitt, T. E., & Wright, B. E. (2007). Self-Control and Criminal Career Dimensions. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 23(1), 72-89. doi: 10.1177/1043986206298949

Prasch, R. E. (2012). The Dodd-Frank Act: Financial Reform or Business as Usual? Journal of Economic Issues, 46(2), 549-556.

Ragatz, L. L., Fremouw, W., & Baker, E. (2012). The Psychological Profile of White-collar Offenders. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 39(7), 978-997. doi: 10.1177/0093854812437846

Raine, A., Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., Loeber, R., Stouthamer-Loeber, M., & Lynam, D. (2005). Neurocognitive Impairments in Boys on the Life-Course Persistent Antisocial Path. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 114(1), 38-49.

Rothe, D. L., & Ross, J. I. (2010). Private Military Contractors, Crime, and the Terrain of Unaccountability. Justice Quarterly, 27(4), 593-617. doi: Pii 912497226

Schnupp, R., Wright, J. P., Beaver, K. M., Delisi, M., & Vaughn, M. (2012). Genes, Maternal Negativity, and Self-Control: Evidence of a Gene × Environment Interaction. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 10(3), 245-260. doi: 10.1177/1541204011429315

Welch, M. (2009). Fragmented power and state-corporate killings: a critique of blackwater in Iraq. Crime, Law and Social Change, 51(3), 351-364. doi: 10.1007/s10611-008-9169-6

Tories take credit for drop in crime

In a recent tongue-in-cheek Facebook post, I asked how long it would take before the Canadian government took credit for the annual drop in crime which was reported this week by Statistics Canada.

I didn’t believe any politician would have the effrontery to make such a claim, but Public Safety Minister Vic Toews says that that keeping the bad guys in longer lowers the crime rate.

Reality Check:

  • The government provides no evidence that their get-tough-on-crime policies are responsible for lower rates of crime. They can’t be criticized for making the “correlation does not mean causation” error because their statements are too vague to identify causes.
  • The available evidence from the United States and Canada says that mandatory minimums have not delivered their anticipated returns in public safety[1].
  • A review of the research for the government by the Department of Justice in 2002 shows that incarceration has little or no impact on recidivism[2].
  • A submission by the Canadian Psychological Association to the Senate Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs earlier this year presented research showing that mandatory minimum sentences are expensive, do not reduce crime, and are unjust.
  • Canada’s crime rate has been dropping since the early 1990s, irrespective of the government in power or their particular crime control policies[3].

[1] Fradella, H. F. (2000). Mandatory Minimum Sentences: Arizona’s Ineffective Tool for the Social Control of Driving Under the Influence. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 11(2), 113-135. doi: 10.1177/0887403400011002002

Joan, P. (2011). Beyond the Prison Bubble. Federal Probation, 75(1), 2.

Nsereko, D. D. N. (1999). Minimum sentences and their effect on judicial discretion. Crime Law and Social Change, 31(4), 363-384.

Schlesinger, T. (2011). The Failure of Race Neutral Policies: How Mandatory Terms and Sentencing Enhancements Contribute to Mass Racialized Incarceration. Crime & Delinquency, 57(1), 56-81. doi: 10.1177/0011128708323629

Welsh, B. C., & Farrington, D. P. (2012). Science, politics, and crime prevention: Toward a new crime policy. Journal of Criminal Justice, 40(2), 128-133. doi: 10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2012.01.008

[2] Gabor, T., & Crutcher, N. (2002). Mandatory Minimum Penalties: Their Effects on Crime, Sentencing Disparities, and Justice System Expenditures. 43. Retrieved from http://canada.justice.gc.ca/en/

[3] Statistics Canada. (2011). Police-reported crime statistics in Canada, 2011 (Catalogue 85-002-X). Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/2012001/article/11692-eng.pdf

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

Preventing Sex Crimes, Not Just Reacting to Them

Is there a way to prevent sexual offenses, aside from reacting after the event?

As it stands today, sex offenders are caught and punished after they have committed a crime. If sex crimes are thus prevented, it’s on the assumption that would-be or potential sex offenders are deterred by the publicity surrounding the sentencing of other sex offenders.

If some form of treatment intervention can be provided for men with sexually deviant tendencies, crime can be prevented. More than two decades ago, a BC psychologist recommended a period of amnesty for practicing, but undiscovered, pedophiles. He believed that these men might turn themselves in for treatment if there was no fear of legal consequences for so doing.

An indication that this approach is useful is provided by Moore (1985) who showed that self-referred sex offenders who had no contact with the criminal justice system in Florida comprised 21% (n=194) of patients in that state’s community treatment programs. A more recent study in the UK concludes that “research has consistently demonstrated that a significant number of people with paedophilic behaviour or interest have successfully completed a treatment programme and do not re-present as paedophilic offenders” (Hossak, Playle, Spencer & Carey (2004, p. 131).

Many other therapists are united in their conclusions that the locus of treatment for some offenders (those with a first conviction) should be in the community. While this “self- referral-without legal-consequences” may not adequately address societal demands for retribution and incapacitation, it does have the possibility of reducing the incidence of some types of sexual offending.

The stigma surrounding sexual offending contributes to its problematic nature. One of the greatest impediments to dealing with sex offences against children is the obligation of the therapist to report offenders to legal authorities and/or the Ministry of Children and Families (as it is in British Columbia). The law makes it unlikely that active or potential child molesters will volunteer for treatment, especially if doing so runs the risk of criminal charges and possibly jail.


Hossack, A., Playle, S., Spencer, A., & Carey, A. (2004). Helpline: Accessible help inviting active or potential paedophiles. Journal of Sexual Aggression: An international, interdisciplinary forum for research, theory and practice, 10(1), 123 – 132.

Moore, H., Zusman, J., & Root, G. (1985). Non-institutional treatment for sex offenders in Florida. American Journal of Psychiatry, 142(8), 964-967.

MacLeans Mag Misleads

The March 16 2009 edition of McLean’s Magazine shows twin handguns displayed on either side of "The Most DANGEROUS Cities in Canada". The cover solicits the reader with "Who’s got the highest rates of murder, robbery and assault. Plus: our gang violence epidemic."

This is a prime example of the profit-seeking misleading the gullible. Reminiscent of "if it bleeds, it leads", the editors of MM conflate crime statistics with dangerousness. The question we need to ask is, "dangerous to whom?"

The risks of becoming a victim are not distributed evenly. A Statistics Canada survey asked 24,000 randomly selected Canadians about their victimization experiences in 2004. Young men between the ages of 15 and 24 years old who spend more than five evenings a week in public space where liquor is consumed are 20 times more likely to become victims of violent crime than the elderly who typically spend evenings at home. It’s all about lifestyle and with whom you hang around.

The national data shows that the crime rate reached its lowest point in 30 years in 2007. Police reported a 7% decline in crime, the third consecutive annual decrease. (Data for 2008 is not yet available.)

National data are poor at describing conditions faced by Canadians at the local level. It gives no comfort to residents of the Lower Mainland to learn that national homicide levels are at an historically low level.

But MacLean’s sensationalistic cover story gives the public no reason to trust the media.

* The graph is from Stats Canada’s Juristat Catalogue no. 85-002-X, Vol. 28, no. 7.

Fighting Organized Crime: The Need for Evaluating “What Works?”

Suppose we looked at all the published reports which evaluate the efforts of police, prosecutors and politicians to fight criminal organizations. Ideally, the reports would show a list of things which don’t work, some which might work, and some which clearly do. Fortunately, such a study has already been done .

    In a 2003 report for Canada’s Department of Justice, criminologist Thomas Gabor reviewed the research which assesses domestic and international efforts to control organized crime. A key problem for doing this type of analysis is the limited number of published evaluations. Most crime control efforts are justified by anecdote, the plural of which does not constitute "data". That knowledge gap should cause us concern because policy-makers do not have information to evaluate efforts to control criminal organizations.

    According to Gabor, the least effective means for dealing with organized crime includes prosecuting organized crime leaders, passing legislation to control money-laundering, seizing assets obtained by crime, and trying to reduce the supply of illegal goods and services through interdiction and enforcement.

    The existing research tells us that the worldwide supply of drugs is largely unaffected by enforcement tactics, and gang warfare is the outcome of fights over drug distribution networks. Criminal organizations rapidly adapt new supply routes and have an virtually unlimited global supply of methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin.

    Organized crime leaders are quickly replaced, and money laundering laws are ineffective because of the sheer volume of transactions, and the lack of cooperation from domestic parties and foreign jurisdictions. Forfeiture and other efforts to seize the assets of crime are complex, costly, and only a miniscule of proceeds are captured.

    Earning the "moderate" or "moderate-high" ratings were enforcement strategies such as prosecuting those operating within criminal organizations (especially under taxation laws), strike and drug task forces, and electronic surveillance. One of the most effective strategies are witness protection programs which facilitate the prosecution of those within criminal organizations.

    Going after gangs requires more than new or enhanced tools for the police and Crown. We also must have a formal means for evaluating the anticipated and unintended consequences of our laws and policies. Only then will we avoid the mistake of repeating the same efforts while expecting different outcomes.

The link to Gabor’s study is http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/pi/rs/rep-rap/2005/rr05_5/index.html 

Five Solutions to Crime

Solution 1 – Compulsory Military Service

“I belong to the most heavily armed gang…”

Young people are at an especially vulnerable time in their lives as they make the transition between youth and adulthood. Parents no longer have the same degree of control is when they were children. Peer groups become more important, hence the attraction of gangs.

There are many legitimate gangs in society which young people can join. Policing and the military are just two options which can hold a lot of attraction for youth. The latter is a better option because military forces do more than just fight battles. There are many domestic peacekeeping operations which could use young people to public projects like:

  • Clean up and maintain Canada’s vast shorelines, especially after oil spills or other damaging environmental events.
  • A great deal of underbrush in our forests can be cleaned out to prevent forest fires, especially in British Columbia.
  • Canada’s infrastructure is in need of maintenance and repair. Youth can join paid work crews to assist in these worthwhile projects.
  • There’s an army of social service workers in Canada’s inner cities who would benefit from the labour and interventions which our young people can offer.
  • Large corporations can be encouraged through tax incentives to take on youth as apprentices for meaningful work in spheres where they have control and influence.
  • Fisheries enhancement is a priority and many coastal communities.
  • Young people can be placed in positions where they can protect wildlife habitat from poachers through surveillance and reporting.

Young people between the ages of 18 and having finished Grade 12 be eligible to join the Canadian armed forces for two years. The training they receive does not necessarily mean preparation for war. Peacekeeping and conflict resolution are also rules within the military.

All of these efforts will add value to Canada and make our country even more attractive to tourists. The aid which are young people by two small communities will be most welcome.

During their two years of military service, we will pay young people at a minimum wage, provide barrack style housing, and pay out a $10,000 completion bonus after two years. Imagine how car sales will boom!

Participants can enter in the trade school or university of their choice for two years with free tuition. A further two years of education will be available to the students with interest free loans.

The rewards of military service will encourage young people to finish high school, achieve a higher education and remain law-abiding. The participants will develop relations with the law abiding peers, and enhance their social capital. In other words, Canadian youth will develop a sense of belonging, much like a gang.

Solution 2 – Extensive Drug Treatment Without Shame

“No thanks, I’m on the patch”.

Trying to quit smoking is seen as an admirable effort in our culture. Trying to wean one’s self off of illicit drugs should be seen as similarly admirable, and Canadians will lend their support to those who want to leave the cycle addiction and crime.

Given that drugs and crime are closely related, Canada must invest heavily drug treatment programs which offer a continuum of care leading to independence. The moral status of addiction will shift from evil to ailment. Treatment must be dignified and include housing and employment opportunities.

Physicians must have the legal powers to treat heroin and cocaine addiction with the pharmacology at their disposal. Doctors will be able to prescribe methadone or pure heroin by prescription.

Tobacco is the deadliest drug and should be the focus of our prevention efforts. This plan will remove much of the profit incentive for organized crime. The savings from moving the drug problem from a legal to a health issue will be substantial, and reduce government expenditures.

It is necessary that governments to admit that prohibition has utterly failed to make any difference in the lives of people who are addicted to opiates. New solutions are required, and every new program of harm reduction must include an evaluation component.

Solution 3 – Promote the Use of Hemp Products

Fields of hemp as far as the eye can see…

Hemp can easily compete with wood pulp as the main ingredient to make paper products. Hemp is the raw ingredient for fabric, cosmetics, rope and many other retail products. A burgeoning hemp industry will create jobs, generate tax revenues and help pay for the reforms that you are reading here.

High THC hemp can be marketed the same way as liquor:

  • It will be taxed, control for quality, restricted from minors, and sales will be saturated media messages emphasizing how misuse can lead to undesirable outcomes, especially for some young people.
  • Canada’s burgeoning marijuana industry will attract tourists, especially from the United States where draconian drug laws have created far more harms than any which can be associated with marijuana. (The most dangerous thing about marijuana is getting caught by the police with it in your possession).

Solution 4 – Cultural Changes Towards Nonviolence

Redefining what it means to be a “real man”.

Violence is shameful. Violence for any other reason than self defence a shameful and a sign a character weakness. That’s the message that has to be broadcast throughout our culture. It will no longer glorified, emulated or become a staple of prime-time television.

We have managed to change attitudes toward smoking, drugs, and drinking and driving with many of the same efforts at changing people’s thinking about their behaviour. We can do the same about violence.

To start, we need to redefine the relationship between men and their care of children:

  • We must define the care of children as the most masculine thing which any man can do.
  • Men who care for children will be the subject of sitcoms, glossy advertising, and the Hollywood cultural industry.
  • Young men today define their masculinity with hair dyes, earrings, ponytails, and shaving hair off their bodies. In previous times, all of these behaviours were seen as feminine. Adding the care of children to these cultural changes should not be a tough sell.

Hopefully, domestic violence will plummet and World Wrestling Entertainment will lose its audience. “Tractor pulls” other vulgar displays of machinery machismo will become obsolete. Sportsmanship during hockey and other professional sports will be enhanced.

Solution 5 – Only Men Run for Public Office and Only Women Vote

This idea has its origins with the Mohawk tribes in North America. While men will run for public office, only women will vote in provincial and Federal elections.

The following social programs will be enhanced has female voters decide priorities for society, such as:

  • Early childhood enrichment programs
  • Universal daycare
  • Equal pay for equal work
  • Women’s work in the home will be compensated like any other full-time job. For example, a mother with two children will be compensated at approximately $60,000 per year. These reforms will pass through Parliament with little resistance.

The impact of this reform cannot be underestimated. Poverty will be significantly affected, parental care will be maximized, more children will be born to Canadian families and within 15 years, the crime rates will drop significantly.

So who’s gonna pay?

Most of these reforms generate wealth or redistribute it. Some of them, such as the changes with respect to drug policy, will save government millions and millions of dollars. Fewer prisons will be necessary when we transform drug addiction to a health problem and not one within the ambit of law enforcement.

We need to tax the wealthy through a “Tobin Tax” where large currency transactions are taxed at 0.5%. There are many other ways to reduce tax loopholes where the wealthiest Canadians pay very little or no taxes whatsoever.

Canadians will pay less for crime control and the healthcare costs associated with illicit drugs.