The inherent racism of “Tough on Crime”

I’ve talked about the need for diversity before, as a way of making policy more effective. When you have a plurality of voices articulating their position, you stand a better chance of hearing new ideas. Diverse groups may be more unwieldy, but they are far less limited in scope than homogenous groups because a variety of perspectives are providing input. There is another reason why diversity is important though: it makes us less stupid. Because any in-group is going to subject to its own biases and privilege, the inclusion of diverse voices helps safeguard a movement from being self-serving, or worse, inadvertently harming another group.

It is fairly clear, based on this response, that the Prime Minister’s Office did not have a particularly diverse group building their absolutely moronic crime bill:

A University of Toronto law professor says a new federal crime bill chips away at sentencing provisions that require judges to consider all reasonable alternatives to jail. This, said Kent Roach, will only increase the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system.

“We’re going to have a future where one in every four people in prison are aboriginal,” he said. “And we’re going to have a future where perhaps more aboriginal people are going to go to jail than to university.”

Nearly half of the inmates in some Canadian prisons are Aboriginal people. That’s despite the fact they make up less than three per cent of the general population.

So, funny story. It turns out that when you take away the ability of judges to… well… judge, they also lose the ability to factor in the causes of crime and the best interest of not only the criminal defendant, but society at large. Poverty and crime are inherently linked. Not all crimes, to be sure, are caused by poverty. One would have to stretch the definition of ‘poverty’ pretty thin to claim that Bernie Madoff was impoverished, but the types of violent and property crime that the omnibus crime bill are supposedly targeting is linked to poverty.

Now the “tough on crime” crowd usually chimes in at this point (after calling me a ‘hug a thug liberal’ or claiming that I care more about criminals than I do their victims), saying that criminals belong in jail for the good of society. They will usually add something about ‘activist judges’ and needing to ‘send a strong message’ to criminals. Mandatory minimum sentencing, they seem to think, acts as a deterrent from crime. After all, criminals spend a lot of time weighing up the pros and cons of their actions beforehand, carefully exploring the minutiae of the criminal code, and reason that since judges will just let them go, there’s no reason not to rob that house.

If anyone was wondering why I do not take political conservatism seriously, this is why.

Where could we possibly find out if mandatory minimum sentences are effective? Gawrsh, if only some high-ranking institution, preferably boasting some kind of expertise in criminal justice, had authored some kind of recent paper about it:

To summarize, the evidence was mixed in terms of the effectiveness of more general mandatory sentencing laws such as “Three Strikes.” Some studies show modest crime preventive effects. California’s Three Strikes legislation has been the most extensively researched of these initiatives. While that state experienced a sharper decline than other states following the law’s implementation, communities in California showed inconsistent effects. Also, studies comparing states with and without such a law showed no difference in their crime trends.

Reasons given for the lack of a more pronounced effect of such sweeping laws include their inconsistent application, the small number of individuals to whom these laws apply, and the possibility that the most serious and persistent offenders already tend to be serving long sentences under existing legislation.

Once again, the dossier grows thicker on why the current party in power has no business calling itself ‘conservative’. A truly conservative government would put as much power in the hands of individual judges as possible, and would decry the kind of government over-reach that this bill represents. Instead, they ignore evidence, even evidence provided by their own experts, to enforce an agenda that they call ‘tough on crime’ but amounts instead to ‘we hate poor people’.

But putting aside for a moment the questions of whether or not mandatory minimums actually work, there is another important aspect to consider. It is no accident that Aboriginal people are disproportionately represented in prisons in Canada, just as it is no accident that black people disproportionately make up the prison population in the United States. While many (all the while swearing that they’re not racist) will point to a deficit in ‘personal responsibility‘ or the innate criminal nature of The Hottentot and the Injun – as deduced by the most up-to-date advances in phrenology – those of us who actually know what we’re talking about recognize that lack of opportunity and education is a far better explanation. Mandatory minimums take the power to consider either the background of the offender (wrt socioeconomic status) or the best resolution to the problem out of the hands of the judges.

Having more First Nations people in prison does not make for a better society. Breaking up families by sending one partner to jail instead of counselling does not make for a better society. Raising First Nations kids in an environment where they are more likely to be incarcerated than make something of themselves does not make for a better society. What it more likely does is trap First Nations communities in an endless cycle of poverty and hopelessness. When you have inadequate education, inadequate housing, lack of political representation, and no discernible opportunities to improve, telling someone “don’t do the crime if you don’t want to do the time” is unspeakably ignorant of the situation on the ground.

The longer we continue to ignore the fact that mandatory minimums are racist – not in the sense that they knowingly target a certain group, but that they have the same effect as though they did – the longer we will pull ourselves down by our own bootstraps. Passing this bill is not just a step backward, it is a flying leap in the face of the evidence, into the yawning chasm of entrenched racism that Canadians pretend isn’t there.

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  1. davidct says

    Another way to look at the racial effects of the legal system would be the disproportionately low number of financial services criminals in jail. These people have caused far more damage to society than the vast majority of the prison population in the US who are there for drug related crime.

  2. thaismcrc says

    Although I agree with everything you said, I think claiming that “crime is linked to poverty” is a bit of an over-simplification. I’m far from being an expert on the subject and I have only read studies about crime here in Rio, so I won’t pretend what I’m about to say is universally applicable. The studies carried out here point not to poverty (or not only), but poverty in the context of a pressure to consume, allied with a certain ideal of masculinity. Crimes against property, or drug dealing (which makes way more money than any jobs available to poor, uneducated young men) are indissociable from a general culture in which your worth is determined not only by your wealth, but by your ability to display that wealth through consumer goods (for instance, expensive sneakers). The young men (and they are almost all men) in the poorer areas of town also grow up with a standard of masculinity that is asserted through dominance over others. Being violent, walking around with big guns, are signs of virility and not doing those things makes you less of a man. Evidently, not all poor people share theses ideas, but they play a big part in the way that those who do commit crimes think. Crime is not a response to objective material deprivation, and I think stating there is a link between poverty and crime may lead to that conclusion. Again, I don’t think any of this invalidates your point, and I know that it wasn’t really the focus of what you wanted to write about. I just think the only way to truly move away from “tough on crime” is to have a more nuanced view of what leads people to commit crime.

  3. Crommunist says

    You’re absolutely right, and to claim that poverty is the only worthwhile explanatory factor when considering crime is indeed an oversimplification. Poverty has broader cultural effects though than simple lack of money, and they tend to dovetail with the other things you mention. The prevalence of gun-toting hyper-masculine tends to diminish as one moves up the socioeconomic ladder, as demonstrations of virility become more financial than tactile. When I talk about ‘poverty’ I am referring to the lack of access coupled with the lack of opportunity – life sucks and it won’t get better. I think if we can address that axis, we will see far fewer crimes. Sure, there will always be dickheads who smash and loot, but we won’t be wasting nearly as much time or effort reacting to the effects of poverty.

  4. DaveH says

    I think the thrust that is trying to be made here is that lack of options is a major contributing factor to systemic crime. So in Rio, the only way up (in the minds of many people) is via criminality.

    In Canada, you have a situation with a completely fucked up reserve system that is always an afterthought for the federal government, where the Minister of Indian Affairs is often just a post to get someone in Cabinet, or to demote them in the guise of a cabinet shuffle, and who cares if they are good for the job. This leads to a system where someone growing up on a reserve has a shitty life, a shitty education, and next to no opportunities. This creates a culture that is hard to escape from, as their children are then often born into the same situation.

    Then since reserves are so messed up, it engenders an attitude of casual racism, which only perpetuates the cycle.

    When I started university, I had a philosophy prof who was American, and liked to relate a story from when she first moved north (70s). People would ask her how the US could treat people of colour so bad, that it didn’t happen here, etc. She would apparently reply “But what about natives here in Canada? They get treated badly.” According to her, a common response was “That’s different, they’re native.”

    (Sigh). We still have a long way to go.

  5. Crommunist says

    I have a hard time wrapping my head around that, but then again I’m a pinko liberal so I’m not exactly a representative sample.


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