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October 15, 2011

Deal with crime before it occurs, says Prof Irving Waller

Reuel S. Amdur

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Irving Waller is a distinguished criminology professor at the University of Ottawa. He was asked what he thought of the Conservatives' omnibus crimes bill, the Safe Streets and Communities Act. "I was surprised," he said, "that Minister of Justice Victor Toews used some real statistics for his case." He was referring to Toews' citing 400,000 violent crimes and 200,000 break-and-enters at a cost of $14 billion in tangible losses and another $68 billion in other losses.

“But,” Waller claimed, “the bill will not do much to reduce violent crimes such as sexual and other assaults, break-and-enters, and car thefts.  Instead, it will gradually increase expenditures by provinces on prisons and eventually by federal government as well.  It will likely mean additional costs as well for more prosecutors and police.”

“The statistics cited are important,” he said, because of the number of crime victims and the harm done to them, “but this isn’t the way to go.”  The negative impact will take time to make itself felt, but it will build up over the years, with more people incarcerated for longer periods of time.

Among Waller’s publications are Less Law, More Order and Rights for Victims of Crime

Waller proposes an alternative approach–deal with crime before it occurs.  “If we took a billion dollars a year for five years and invested in programs that focused on youth at risk, we would be able to reduce harm to victims by 30 to 50%, and much more over 10 years.” 

He offers concrete alternatives to expensive and relatively ineffective approaches to crime and corrections.  “Yet, if you don’t like the tough-on-crime legislation, they say you are soft on crime,” he noted ruefully.  The evidence is in, from various successful programs.  He cited youth outreach programs such as Chicago’s Cease Fire and 120 British Youth Inclusion programs.

“Canada,” he said, “has many examples of effective crime prevention.  Manitoba took $20 million from the Provincial insurance agency to diagnose and solve the problems of epidemic car thefts and so has reduced car thefts and saved the insurance body and so taxpayers $80 million.  Waterloo Region and Montreal have internationally renowned municipal crime prevention strategies that are spreading across Canada.  School boards in south-western Ontario pioneered a core school curriculum called 4th R to reduce sexual assaults by boys.  The program costs very little, mainly in teacher preparation.  Most sexual assaults are committed by teens and men in their early 20's.” 

In general, he said that key elements in successful crime prevention programs aimed at the main target group of at-risk young people are outreach workers and control of access to alcohol, guns and knives. 

The Safe Streets and Communities Act does not address the serious problem of mental illness in the prison population.  “We need to see what the government will do about that in the next budget in February,” he said.  Past history does not appear to offer much hope in this regard.  Professor Waller observed that Alberta has taken mental health into consideration in its effort to address youth delinquency.  They looked at the problem and saw a need to increase mental health services for youth.

  1. And 25% of urban Aboriginal violence is directed at Aboriginal women.”

When it comes to release after serving two-thirds of a sentence, Aboriginals are often passed by.  And the new legislation will severely limit community based approaches to dealing with Aboriginal offenders.

One example of this shortcoming is what happens to the use of healing (or sentencing) circles.  A healing circle is a shaming ritual procedure that involves representatives of the community listening to the offender and often the victim and determining an appropriate resolution.  It may involve time in jail but may often include a conditional sentence in the community and some form of restitution.  Such a circle occurs only when the person admits guilt. 

According to Waller, the best way to deal with crime is to prevent it.  The next best is to do so within the community.  Prison should only be the last resort.  That approach is both more effective and less costly than the heavy emphasis on prison. One surprise in the current situation is that the provinces have not expressed opposition to this crime bill in a forceful fashion.  Since many of the crimes will earn provincial prison sentences, they are going to be the big losers financially.

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