Tough on crime

One does not have to plumb the depths of political rhetoric very far to expose the unbelievable hypocrisy and outright falsehood lying just beneath the varnished surface of its truisms. The right to publicly-administered health care is not slavery. Republicans are not better on the economy. The Harper Government™ is not tough on crime:

The Supreme Court of the Canada will hear arguments this week that will likely determine the future of Vancouver’s supervised injection site, known as Insite. The court will have to decide whether Insite is a health-care facility under the jurisdiction of the B.C. government, and whether closing it violates the rights of impoverished drug addicts.

Supporters, including the province, say a body of peer-reviewed studies has proven Insite prevents overdose deaths, reduces the spread of HIV and hepatitis, and curbs crime and open drug use. But the federal government rejects that evidence, arguing the facility fosters addiction and runs counter to its tough-on-crime agenda.

Those of you not familiar with Vancouver’s safe injection site should read Ethan Clow’s excellent analysis of the issue. I will do my best to summarize. As we learned from the United States in the 1920s (and from our own failed national experiment), prohibition is a really stupid way of trying to stop people from doing something. There are generally two ways of preventing an unwanted behaviour – enforcement and outreach. Prohibition puts the emphasis firmly into the first camp by creating stiff penalties for engaging in the unwanted behaviour. With respect to drugs, this means punishing those that use and sell drugs.

One of the biggest looming issues facing Canadians with the Republican North majority is the introduction of the omnibus crime bill. Basically, this bill calls for money to be funneled into the prison system, including the construction of new incarceration facilities. Of course, this comes at a time when crime rates are in fact dropping, but the RNP has a solution for that too – make more things crimes! Mandatory minimum sentencing is one tool in the arsenal of a prohibitive government – take legal leeway out of the hands of judges and force standard jail terms regardless of the severity of the crime.

The problem, as anyone with even the slightest insight into human behaviour and psychology will be able to tell you, is that people are generally going to do whatever they want if they don’t think they’ll get caught. When it comes to drugs (especially drugs like marijuana with negligible personal risk due to use), people will always want to get high, and unless you have cops on every street corner and outside every window, people will find a way to do just that. While drug use may be a bad thing (I think the issue is more nuanced than that, but let’s just grant the assertion for a moment), if your goal is to reduce drug use, your policies should be targeted at doing just that.

If you don’t think that drug use per se is bad, but rather the consequences of drug use (addiction, self-harm, overdose, loss of control) are bad, then you would likely favour an approach known as “harm reduction”. Basically, the idea is to find a way to allow people to do what they want but to minimize the negative repercussions. For example, alcohol is regulated in such a way as to minimize the damage – only licensed facilities may dispense it and staff must be trained to recognize intoxication; only people of a certain age may purchase it; purity of ingredients is inspected by the government – people still drink, but in a way that is much safer than it used to be before those regulations were in place.

In the case of Insite, the negative health consequences of intravenous drug use are mitigated by providing clean needles (that are not infected with HIV) and a safe place to get high. Needles are disposed of safely (rather than in the streets, where any number of things can and do happen to them), and overdoses are managed by professionals. It is certainly not ideal – ideal would be to have zero drug users – but it does save lives, reduce infection rates, and actually saves the city a lot of money. It is the kind of local control for a local problem that small-government conservatives and libertarians should applaud.

Not so the Republicans though. They claim to be “tough on crime”, but what they actually are is litigious on crime. They endorse laws that expand the role of the federal government to interfere in municipal matters and take discretion out of the hands of judges and place it in the (completely incapable) hands of elected officials. This is the kind of behaviour, of course, that Conservatives (note the capitalization) constantly accuse Liberals of; however, it’s only wrong when it’s something Conservatives don’t like. When it’s for their own cause, there is always some bullshit rationalization.

I have a friend who is a prison guard (actually I have a few, but I am talking about this one in particular) who was overjoyed over the RPN majority election. His rationale was that there would finally be attention paid to the state of the prison system, and no more coddling of criminals. Far be it from me to question his expertise in terms of what the inside of a prison looks like – he’s in one every day and I haven’t even visited. However, I think his assessment is short-sighted. The omnibus crime bill creates more criminals, it does not reduce crime. If anything, it statistically increases crime (convenient, when you have all these new prisons to fill) by creating new criminals. It does not reduce the harms caused by criminal behaviour, nor does it do anything to reduce the true underlying causes of criminal behaviour (income disparity, lack of opportunity/education, living conditions).

Both the political left and right undoubtedly want to reduce the incidence of crime. It is in nobody’s best interest for there to be more crime. However, one side of the political debate has chosen a method that is proven not to work, and does so in the name of being “tough on crime”. Nothing could be further from the truth, and we are all about to learn this first-hand.

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