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Aug 30 2011

Fighting fire with gasoline

Sometimes the road to hell is paved with the best of intentions. Oftentimes things that seem like good ideas completely fail to improve the situation. In some cases, because we are fallible human creatures with flawed brains, we often devise solutions to problems that actually make those problems worse. Our politicians, in theory, should be less prone to making these types of mistakes than we lowly civilians – after all, they are selected because of their superior leadership and merit, right? It seems to be the cynical case that this is not a reasonable expectation of our leaders:

The country’s foremost legal organization has delivered a grim assessment of the Harper government’s get-tough-on-crime agenda, attacking mandatory minimum sentences and questioning Ottawa’s eagerness to put offenders behind bars. With a series of blunt statements and policy resolutions, the Canadian Bar Association’s annual conference bristled at inaccessible courts, inappropriate jailing of mentally ill offenders and costly measures that threaten to pack prisons.

The Canadian Bar Association likely knows a thing or two about crime. After all, they are far more intimately familiar with the issues than the average Canadian. They see the way that people move through the justice system – both its successes and failures are the stuff of their professional lives. It is therefore a resounding condemnation of the upcoming omnibus crime bill to have such a sharp and public criticism from this sector.

“There are too many people who are mentally ill and should be dealt with in the health system as opposed to the criminal justice system,” [Nove Scotia prosecutor Dan] McRury said. “We need more sentencing options. One size does not fit all. “Being tough on the most vulnerable in our society is not humane,” Mr. McRury added. “Unfortunately, deinstitutionalizing our mental hospitals has meant that we have exchanged prison cells for hospital beds – but without having enough supports in the community.”

Another resolution passed by the 37,000-member organization called for governments to stop toughening laws without regard to the historic plight of aboriginal people and the over-representation of aboriginal offenders in prison.

If I had a magic policy wand and one item to use it on, it would definitely be to find better solutions for mental health care. So many broad social problems – crime, homelessness, health care spending, workplace productivity – all of these have strong links with undiagnosed and undertreated mental health issues. The CBA seems to recognize that fact. And yet, the new bill would have no provisions for providing mental health services to those in need, and would in fact mandate that they be put in jail instead of in hospitals where they could actually get some help. Even though it seems like creating harsher sentencing rules seems like it should result in less crime, the evidence suggests otherwise. Even purposeful rational thought (rather than appeals to ‘common sense’) reveals that factors besides legislation are responsible for crime, and can be manipulated to achieve the desired effect of reduction in crime rates.

Of course, that presumes that our political leaders are interested in either evidence or purposeful rational thought. There may be some hope for the system here in British Columbia:

The traditional risk factors for joining gangs — poverty, family dysfunction, a sense of alienation and lack of social supports — don’t appear to hold true for Vancouver gangs, a gang-prevention researcher says. As anti-gang experts work to head off retaliatory attacks for Sunday’s gang shooting in Kelowna that killed Red Scorpion Jonathan Bacon and wounded Hells Angel Larry Amero and three others, researcher Gira Bhatt is looking at ways to prevent kids from joining gangs in the first place.

Bhatt, a psychology professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, says the gang demographics in B.C. are unique. “[For example,] if you look at the Bacon brothers, they come from a good family — a rich family — where the parents are very supportive of their kids,” Bhatt said. “We can’t borrow solutions from Toronto or Los Angeles and apply them here.”

Many people may not be familiar with the significant gang problem facing British Columbia. Because of how lucrative the drug trade is, gangs command a great deal of resources and influence. As Dr. Bhatt notes, there are factors unique to the region that make B.C. gangs different from gangs in other areas of the world. The proposed solutions must reflect this uniqueness:

“Police are asking for more resources, and yes, they need more resources. But if that’s all we do, the need for more and more police will simply grow over time,” Bhatt said.

[MLA, former solicitor-general and former West Vancouver police chief Kash] Heed called for a “comprehensive strategy” to combat gangs, including a universal anti-bullying program in schools, early-intervention programs for families and meaningful opportunities for kids to get involved in their community. “You are not going to arrest your way out of this gang situation that we have,” Heed said. “We’re just reacting to the problem. We’ve reacted to this problem since 1994 here in Vancouver. We still have this absolutely astounding display of public violence on our streets.”

Critics on both sides of the political divide (although primarily on the right) tend to decry ‘one size fits all’ solutions to social problems. I think there is merit to this position – each region must have some leeway to solve its own problems in its own way. However, despite being aligned with the right, the Republican North Party has taken the decidedly non-conservative step of giving the federal government the authority to take decision-making power out of the hands of the justice system. If it were a left-wing government proposing this kind of program, that would at least be consistent with the idea of government intervention in individual lives. Coming from a government that at least pretends to be conservative, it is a stark revelation of their own hypocrisy.

What’s my proposal? I say we decide policy on a case-by-case basis and look at what the evidence says. If the evidence says mandatory minimums work, then let’s do that. If the evidence says that coddling criminals works, then we do that. No matter how uncomfortable it might make us. Failing to make our policy responsive to observable reality, rather than a slave to our ideological prejudices, will only serve to exacerbate problems to the detriment of everyone.

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