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November 27, 2015

Prevention, not punishment

Reuel S. Amdur

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In a sermon delivered at Ottawa's First Unitarian Congregation on October 18, Irvin Waller decried the rate of incarceration. His talk was entitled "From Punishment to Public Safety." He called for a shift from policing and incarceration to prevention.

Waller is a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa and a world-renown expert in the field.  He is a consultant to the UN Economic and Social Council (EcoSoc).  Much of the activities in the Security Council and General Assembly is disappointing rhetoric in the face of blood-letting and other injustice.  However, the work in the specialized UN agencies is often quite valuable.

“If we reduced our expenditures on policing by the same amount. . . we would save $4 billion.” 

Waller told the congregation that the harm from crime in Canada amounts to $83 billion a year, five per cent of GDP (Gross Domestic Product).  “That’s the rate for the world, but we should be doing better,” he urged.

So what would a preventive approach look like? 

Winnipeg, with a new mayor and chief of police, has identified a high needs area with a heavy Aboriginal population.  The city is putting in additional resources to provide better opportunities and services for residents, especially young people.  With the money saved on lowering incarceration rates and reducing police expenditures, we could provide preschool for all the three- and four-year-olds, double teacher salaries, and eliminate tuition in higher education.  “One study found that for every dollar we invest in pre-kindergarten we save twice that in reduced crime.” 

He gave full credit to EcoSoc for leadership in establishing its Agenda 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals.  The targets include a substantial reduction of homicide and other violence, elimination of violence against women and girls, and halving traffic fatalities.  To reach these targets, countries will need to commit the funds, develop the human resources, and conduct research to measure outcomes of programs to reduce crime.

Waller pointed out that addressing adverse social conditions has been shown to reduce crime.  Yet, Harper’s program has been to set minimum sentences and expand penal facilities.  And to add to this dismal picture, both Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair promise to put more police on the street.  More police are not the solution to the problem and only make it more difficult for municipalities, with limited ability to raise taxes, to engage in prevention.

Professor Waller cited this remark by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”  He also cited Winston Churchill: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.” 

What would Dostoyevsky and Churchill say about the Ashley Smith case?  Mentally ill prisoners, of whom she was one, are likely to spend considerable time in solitary.  In a 2013 report, Howard Sapers, who was then the correctional ombudsman, found that almost a fourth of federal prisoners spend time in solitary, 40% for over 30 days and almost 17% more than 120 days. 

Federal and provincial correctional facilities suffer from overcrowding and lack of medical and psychological resources.  And safety of inmates is an ongoing concern.

Canada relies too heavily on punitive approaches and too little on prevention.  It fails to provide the necessary care for those it imprisons.

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