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January 16, 2014

Crime Prevention

The Canadian Charger

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On December 12, Crime Prevention Ottawa (CPO) hosted a presentation by Stephen Waldie, Director of the External Relations Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. He outlined Ontario's crime prevention strategy, mirroring the information in Crime Prevention in Ontario, a booklet which is available on request from the Ministry.

The booklet notes, contrary to much public perception, that the statistics show low rates of crime in the province.  As for prevention, it is defined as follows: “The anticipation, recognition and appraisal of crime risk and the action taken—including the integrated community leadership required—to remove or reduce it.”

Various risk factors are cited, individual, familial, community, and societal.  Among those are poor educational achievement, poor mental health, victimization in the form of abuse or racism, and past criminal behavior.  Family factors include “few economic resources”—they mean poverty.  The list includes “negative parenting,” which presumably includes culture conflict in immigrant families, with children facing conflicting expectations from family on the one hand and peers and other social institutions on the other.

Also listed were factors inhibiting crime.  At the individual level the list includes positive school experience and attachment to an adult role model, among other things.  Noticeably missing is the factor of opportunity, though it is acknowledged as important further on in the booklet.

Crime prevention is divided into situational and social provisions.  Situational provisions include surveillance and monitoring systems, environmental design, and car and home alarm systems.  Let’s take surveillance and monitoring systems for the moment.  When I was a welfare worker in Toronto, there was an apartment house that was off limits for home visits because of safety concerns.  A camera was installed at the ground floor, and safety concerns diminished.

A simple example of environmental design is how a retail business keeps its window.  If the window is kept clear, criminal activity inside can be seen from the street.  A criminal will prefer to attack a store where he cannot be noticed from the outside.

Social means include improving parental skills, literacy rates, and employment opportunities.  Not mentioned are values education and support of immigrant organizations to aid in community integration and child rearing.  While mental health problems were noted as an important factor, it is not addressed in the booklet.  Nancy Worsfold, Executive Director of CPO, expressed her frustration, at the session, with the lack of resources for young people with mental health and addictions problems.  “All you can give them is a place on a waiting list.” 

While the focus on prevention is admirable, there are problems with how government is addressing it.  First, there is a glaring contradiction between this positive approach at the provincial level and the contrary approach federally.  While Ontario wants to work to reintegrate offenders into society, the Harper government wants to make it ever more difficult.  The tough-on-crime agenda makes it more difficult to eliminate a criminal record and prevents meaningful implementation of restorative justice approaches-- Aboriginal sentencing circles, as an example.  

Prevention also includes how inmates are treated, as almost all of them eventually get out.  It is clear that Ontario has a major problem with the way in which its jails function, making them a hindrance rather than an asset in crime prevention.  They are severely overcrowded, and management of at least some of the facilities is appalling.

Then there is the factor of broader measures of crime prevention.  Worsfold was on the mark on mental health and addictions services.  What is their priority on the government’s agenda?  And reduction of poverty is another issue.  Organized crime can be very lucrative and attractive to people mired in deep poverty. It is clear that not all members of the Ontario cabinet are on the same page on welfare reform and minimum wage increase.  The booklet calls for an integrated approach at the local level.  Fine, but how about an integrated approach at the provincial level, not to mention in federal-provincial approach?

Let us conclude by dealing with another issue: white-collar crime.  The emphasis is on preventing street-level criminality and violence—basically lower class and working class crime.  The term “banksters” can be traced back to 1937 and its use by the Belgian fascist Léon Degrelle. Having lost its fascist pedigree, it has recently come into common usage.  It reflects a recognition that élite crime is prevalent.  It is rarely detected, rarely punished and, when punished, rarely severely.  Is it not worth at least the same attention as is given to other forms of crime?  The distinguished criminologist Edwin Sutherland contended that such crime is socially more destructive than your run-of-the mill bank robbery.

By Reuel Amdur

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