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January 20, 2011

Irving Waller's new approach to crime, a book review

Reuel S. Amdur

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Irving Waller's Less Law More Order (Ancaster, Ontario: Manor House Publishing, 2008) and Rights for Victims of Crime (Toronto, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011).

With these two books, world-renowned criminologist Irvin Waller firmly outlined and detailed a different approach for dealing with crime. 

To be more precise, the approach addresses primarily blue-collar crime, street crime, and low-level white collar crime.  Thus, gang violence is considered but the kind of crime illustrated by the sponsorship scandal or the behavior of Conrad Black is less clearly addressed.  However, for the kinds of crime described, Waller is highly persuasive.

In a time of falling crime rates, largely related to demographic factors such as the decline in the youth population, the Conservatives want to spend some $600 million now to expand the federal penitentiary system, with additional millions to operate it. 

The expansion is to meet the needs created by its “tough on crime” legislation, much of which received support from Liberals and NDP. 

The only clearly reasoned political opposition to this drive came from the Green Party and its Justice Critic Jared Giesbrecht.  The Greens put forth a program much like what Waller has proposed.  To be fair, the Bloc Québécois should also be given credit for a measure of opposition to the Tory legislation, and NDP-er Bill Siksay stuck his neck out to vote against his party’s stand on one measure, drawing the ire of his party leader. 

Waller shows that incarceration has limited success in addressing crime, in spite of is extreme cost.  In fact the strain on government budgets by the emphasis on punishment limits the money available for the kinds of interventions that are more effective, such as targeted approaches to troubled neighborhoods.

For such neighborhoods, he calls for a coordinated approach involving schools, police, social agencies, city planners, and others to identify the problem and contributing factors and then to initiate a joint effort to respond to it. 

Often, the approach may involve efforts to keep young people in school, giving support to young mothers, getting jobs for unemployed youth, etc.  A challenge in this regard is the inflexibility of funding. Police, schools, and social agencies each have their separate allocated budgets, so that, for instance, a board of education may not have the flexibility to undertake a needed major stay-in-school initiative, and other sources may not be able to shift money to it. 

Rather than focusing on heavy penalties for offenders, which have limited effect, he calls for much wider use of restorative justice.  One example involves victim-offender reconciliation, in which an offender is shamed in having to meet with the offender, apologize, and make restitution in some agreed upon fashion.  The shaming is an instrument to promote change in the offender.

Another example is the sentencing circle, typically used in Aboriginal communities.  The sentencing circle involves community members confronting the offender and discussing with the offender what the appropriate disposition should be.  Shaming is again a key component.

Waller identifies various positive approaches that involve cooperative and multifaceted undertakings.  Surprisingly, he speaks positively of an Alberta program: “eighty new treatment beds in community health centers were created, $60 million was slated for prevention programs, and two hundred new police officers were hired.”  He makes no comment on the 200 additional cops, expensive manpower the funds for which might better be spent elsewhere in a decade during which, while crime is decreasing, police costs have risen over 41%.

He calls for refocusing our legal thinking from seeing violence and other crime as being against the Crown to instead bringing the victim back into the picture.  The victim should be included throughout the process from the time of arrest and should have legal representation during a trial.  Waller tells us of the French system, in which the criminal case and the civil proceeding for restitution are combined in a single process.  Often, if the offender meets his obligations determined civilly, the penalty may be waived. 

Waller sees a need for much better funding of services for victims.  In response to violence against women, he wants more support for rape crisis centres.  These centres do not usually talk about the number of clients served, but in Waterloo Region it was stated that they got around 100 calls a month–three a day, more or less.  To run a 24/7 operation for such a level of demand hardly makes sense.  The Yellow Brick House in York Region is a more rational model, combining an emergency shelter with the rape crisis function. 

In Rights of Victims of Crime, Waller favors more adequate compensation for victims, as well as needed counseling services.  I assist people seeking Criminal Injuries Compensation in Ontario, and it is my experience that the Board tends to lean rigidly on portions of the legislation giving it discretion to reduce or deny an award where “any behaviour of the victim. . . may have directly or indirectly contributed to his or her injury or death” and to whether the person cooperated and reported the offence.  In such cases, typically the Board grants nothing.  This consistent practice may well constitute an abuse of discretion.

A case in point: One of my clients sought to buy crack from a dealer.  The dealer attacked him with a machete, resulting in serious nerve and muscle damage limiting the use of his hand.  Board decision: no award.

These two books provide serious arguments for a redirection of criminal justice policy.  The inclusion of the victim in the process, as illustrated in the restorative justice approach, resurfaces in the demand for ongoing information to the victim and participation by the victim at all stages of the legal proceedings.

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