Like a business adding warehouse capacity for a new venture, the Conservative government, in the throes of its Tough on Crime initiatives, has doubled the budget for prison construction and maintenance. It’s “All Prisons, All the Time!” down at the Conservative Store! — Yes, no matter what ails us (and no problem’s too small!) prison, that magic elixir, will surely cure it! And more’s always better, of course, just like the good old days:
“… Penalties increased and at the end of the century there were two hundred offences on the statute book which were punishable with death. The barbarity of the English penal code struck many foreigners with surprise and horror. They declared that it exceeded in rigour anything to be found in France, Italy or the German states. It had certainly no effect in diminishing crime, which became far worse and more widespread as the century advanced and penalties increased.” — Rosamond Bayne-Powell, Travellers in Eighteenth Century England.
The English penal code of the 18th and early 19th centuries — a classic Tough on Crime agenda if ever there was one: an astonishing “two hundred offences,” including such minor acts as shoplifting, burglary, and theft from a dwelling, were capital crimes.
Though inarguably harsh, this approach to crime did nothing to make society safer. As the above author notes: “It had certainly no effect in diminishing crime, which became far worse and more widespread as the century advanced and penalties increased.”
The expression “Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb!” hails from this time — rather than feed your starving family for a day by stealing a lamb, you might as well steal a sheep and feed them for a week; the penalty is the same. Or, if you’re already facing death for something as trivial as shoplifting, there’s really nothing to lose in escalating to major crimes like kidnapping, arson, rape, or murder.
It’s an extreme example, but the point remains: severe sentences and harsh treatment do not equate to less crime, nor to a safer society. Yet, the knee-jerk clamour for harsher punishment, longer sentences for more crimes, mandatory minimums and the like still resounds. When someone is harmed by a wrongful act the anger and the rage boil up; deep down, we want someone to pay. This is “justice,” we say, and we cry out for it.
But it’s revenge, not justice. And, while such simplistic reaction might feel good in the short term, it doesn’t actually help anyone. It rights no wrong, nor does it tend to reduce the violence in society, the incidence of crime, or the overall harm. It can, in fact, make things worse. Research into contemporary policies such as minimum sentences, capital punishment, harder-time, and the like, backs this up in the present day.
The goal of our justice system cannot be about “getting even,” even if we could get even. The goal is not to put more and more people away for more and more things and for longer and longer times; the goal must be to reduce violence and harm, and reduce the impact of such as still occurs. That is a true Tough on Crime agenda.
But this needs an holistic approach that encompasses the full range of the problem, beyond the current fetish on retribution. We need to hold to a firm emphasis on crime prevention, which means a lot of things: community involvement and better police resources, certainly, but more broadly and more significantly, we need to firmly address the root causes of crime.
There are probably as many reasons for crime as there are people who commit them. But there are broad issues that we can identify and make strides to resolve: poor life-skills, unemployability, poverty and substance abuse, to name a few.
People driven by desperation or hopelessness need to be able to see better options than short-cuts through crime. When one has better choices than whether to steal a sheep or a lamb, for example, we have far fewer thefts of either lambs or sheep, and the argument about how severe should be the punishment abates.
In fact, due to efforts in crime prevention and on addressing the causes of crime in the last couple of decades, and despite contrary inflammatory rhetoric for short-term political gain, Statistics Canada reports show an overall decrease in crime, particularly violent crime.
This is not to say that there should not be consequences for wrongful acts. But as we realize that punishment is not the objective, we recognize that prisons and compounding the misery are not our only recourse; we can include, for example, redress, and atonement in our repertoire, as well as other reasonable alternatives as present themselves. But we must take care that these are indeed reasonable, and that their overall effect is indeed to reduce our risk, which we must determine based on valid research, not ideology or wishful thinking.
This is a long-term approach; its benefits will accrue slowly and continuously — but they will cascade to profound effect in the future. In addition to reducing crime and all the woeful consequences of crime, it will raise the tone and quality of our lives, throughout our society.