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Feb 28 2012

Courting disaster

I don’t do a lot of computer coding at work, but I do occasionally find myself forced to make a computer do something that exists only in my head and on paper. I don’t really have much of a background in computer science, aside from a couple of courses in statistical analysis methods in undergrad. The problem is, there’s certainly no shortage of project in which at least some coding is required, forcing me to have to learn as I go. Luckily, I am surrounded by competent professionals who can give me examples of their own work that I can copy. Of course, the problem with this approach is that I do occasionally have to do some original work and solve new problems.

My incompetence (in this matter – I am well competent in most things, just not computer programming so much) forces me to try and tackle the problem with the little experience and few tools that I have at my disposal. This involves using the few tools I have at my disposal in a series of “work-arounds”. What inevitably emerges is a program that functions, but is really clumsy and unwieldy. If I have to go back and change something, it takes a lot of unraveling, which is a time-consuming process. When I show it to colleagues, they always say “oh, well why didn’t you just do this?” and then they show me some nifty trick or macro or something that I hadn’t even considered, and it cleans up my analysis really quickly and elegantly.

Now, if I were less aware of my relatively junior standing in my field, or if I were just a whiny and petulant dick, I would view the contributions of my colleagues as attacks on my intelligence. I’d refuse to show them the flaws in my work, in an attempt to cultivate an illusion of infallibility – an illusion that would quickly crumble under the intense scrutiny of peer review. That’s how science works – it’s actually to my benefit to show my work to my colleagues, even if it means exposing my own ignorance. I will learn something, and my results will be much stronger when it comes time to have them reviewed by others who may not be as friendly. It turns out that there may be an element to this in politics as well:

Sending a first-time offender to prison for three years for possessing a loaded gun is “cruel and unusual punishment,” an Ontario judge ruled Monday in striking down the mandatory minimum sentence as unconstitutional. The decision comes at a time when the federal Conservative government is pushing ahead with its controversial tough-on-crime agenda, including new mandatory minimums for drug and child sex crimes. The judgment is “directly contrary” to what is happening in Ottawa, said Dirk Derstine, the defence lawyer on this case.

Now if you want to laugh, you’ll definitely want to look at the particulars of the court case. I don’t want to get sidetracked by the defendant’s dumbfuckery too much, because there is a larger point to be made here. The current government has had lots and lots and lots and lots of warning that their single-minded pursuit of their “tough on crime” agenda will end up doing far more damage than good to the state of Canadian justice. The whole purpose of Parliamentary debate is to have a variety of perspectives weigh in on legislation, so that the “work arounds” present in any legislation get replaced with better ideas, so that they don’t get challenged by the “peer review” process of the electorate and the judiciary. However, if you’re running a government like a petulant child who lashes out at constructive criticism instead of incorporating it, you run afoul of judges who are not afraid to strike down your laws when they violate the charter.

Does anyone want to lay odds that this is exactly how it will go down?

The federal government’s proposed omnibus crime bill could free more accused criminals than it incarcerates, according to the Canadian Bar Association and some lawyers. In Canada, the Askov ruling happens when a judge determines whether an accused’s right “to be tried within a reasonable time” has been infringed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It means any case that drags out for an unreasonably long time can be dismissed. That rule, which comes from a Supreme Court decision in October 1990, now has many lawyers worried the proposed crime bill, which is currently the subject of Senate hearings, will clog the court system.

We are already facing this issue in British Columbia, where the courts are so clogged that cases are getting thrown out. What do you think will happen when even more drug cases are funneled into the court system? As serious, violent criminal offenses are let go because there are too many people caught with more than the allowable number of pot plants in their back yard? As the very same victims of crime that the government claims will be the beneficiaries of this new bill slowly realize that crime is up and the courts cannot clear the backlog that the bill creates? As popular services are cut in order to pay for the additional prisons and other facilities required by the justice system?

While it seems that the Senate is only making cosmetic changes that do nothing to reverse the major policy mistakes of this bill, it appears that the government would prefer to have their mistakes play out on the national stage instead of letting the smaller defeats prevent a larger rejection by those of us living in the ‘reality based community’. For all the damage that this bill will undoubtedly do to the country, it will most assuredly be the Albatross that hangs around the neck of this government, as the terrible results of this policy become more and more apparent. And who knows? Maybe by the time the cracks really begin to show, I’ll actually have become a halfway-competent coder!

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12 comments

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  1. 1
    Aliasalpha

    Maybe you could code an expert system to enable politicians to pose hypothetical questions and then have it patiently explain in simple words why their idea is stupid

  2. 2
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    But .. but … that’s judicial *activism* (Gasp! Shock! Horror!) & therefore teh ebbill by definition!

  3. 3
    James Sweet

    Heh, this case would make American conservatives’ heads asplode. “Tough on crime! But…. Love guns! But….. Tough on cri–” BOOM!

  4. 4
    Guillaume Muller

    Thing is, the conservatives probably want it to work poorly. When the costs explodes and the judiciary system is releasing more people, they have more reason to crackdown on expenses they don’t like and pass something to try and break the judges. I’m sorry, but at this point, I’m hoping for a PQ victory, a referendum, and getting out of there.

  5. 5
    Medivh

    Crom, can I come work with you? I had to quit my last job with a research organisation because I stepped on a few too many toes by demonstrating to scientists that they weren’t competant coders. I apparently did this by suggesting better ways to code their analyses. Incidentally, I was hired to be the coding expert. You know, someone to help clean up the botched crap code that they had lying around.

  6. 6
    dianne

    Hah! Canadians, tough on crime? Here in the US we’re prosecuting troubled 9 year olds for stupid accidents that are entirely the fault of their guardians who can’t figure out how to lock up their guns so that the kids don’t get at them. Tell your politicians to give it up: they’ll never match the US level of insanity and will only look like wannabes by trying.

  7. 7
    Dunc

    There are few concepts in the world of crime and punishment that bother me more than “mandatory minimum sentencing”. It’s always a bad idea. (At least, I’ve never seen an example when it wasn’t, and I can’t think of a hypothetical one.) The whole point of leaving sentencing to the courts is that they alone are in the position to fully account for all the peculiarities of any individual case, and there are always going to be awkward edge cases where applying a mandatory minimum sentence results in injustice.

  8. 8
    Crommunist

    They aren’t just ‘edge cases’ though. Mandatory minimums remove any ability for judges to actually use their… oh what’s that called… oh right, judgment, meaning that the very concept of justice gets railroaded by know-nothings who think that criminals are deterred by stiffer penalties – as though someone is saying “I’ll happily do 3 years for drug trafficking, but FIVE? No thank you, sir!”

  9. 9
    John Moeller

    Great article. This is something that I wasn’t aware of about the Canadian justice system; it would be nice if we had that down here.

    One complaint though: Computer Science != programming. We use programming as a tool, just like everyone else; albeit probably more than most disciplines. Thanks.

  10. 10
    'Tis Himself

    Conservatives love mandatory minimum sentences. They want to be “tough on crime” and “not coddling criminals” and other propaganda slogans as appropriate.

  11. 11
    Dunc

    Good point. It’s the edge cases that are the most noticeably egregious (e.g. where some fine, upstanding, law-abiding citizen gets railroaded on a technicality) but the whole idea is dreadful. Ought to be unconstitutional if you ask me (if we had a constitution here in the UK).

  12. 12
    bcoppola

    What’s with this nonsensical concern about “reintegration and rehabilitation of criminals” up there? No wonder you’re such a lawless no-man’s land! Thank God I live in Detroit and not (shudder!) Windsor!

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