Texan Crime Fighters: The Voice of… Reason?

I must have suffered a brain injury overnight, because I find myself in a perceptual space where I’m actually agreeing with right wing Republicans from Texas who seem to have a more logical and rational grasp on crime fighting than our own Government. Texans. You know, the “you’ll have to pry my gun out of my cold, dead hands” and “don’t mess with Texas” crowd?

Texan conservative lawmakers and a coalition of American experts attacked the Harper crime omnibus bill in a statement Monday, saying “If you build it, they will come.” Their contention is that greater creativity and community good comes from moving away from mandatory minimum sentences and more numerous incarcerations, contrary to Harper’s plan to build jails and keep criminals locked up longer. What they are saying mirrors common accepted knowledge and statistical evidence from Canada as well as the US. Question is, if everyone including the poster boys south of the border know this, why doesn’t our own Government?

The Harper crime ombinus, bill C-10, is intended to address the feeling in Canadian communities that criminals are not subject to adequate justice, and communities are becoming less safe. The imposition of stiffer sentencing guidelines and more frequent, as well as lengthier jail terms are tools that have been a part of the American justice system for decades, and are cornerstones of bill C-10. They are also predicated on two principles: first, that there is an existing problem with crime that is either at an unacceptably high level or is getting worse, which would indicate that current legislation and measures to address criminality are inadequate; second, that longer and more severe punishment for offenders works as a deterrent to crime.

So, let’s have a look at that.

Statistics Canada tracks police-reported crime statistics and makes these available to the public on a regular basis. These statistics track the number and kind of criminal code offences and compare them to previous years, which gives a very accurate and clear image of the evolution of criminality in Canada. What it does not do is measure the public’s perception or feelings about crime in their neighbourhoods, which can be completely different from the reality of the situation. In fact, public perception usually tends towards thinking that the current crime measures are not working to decrease crime, sentences are not severe enough and communities are less safe now than they were before. However, the national crime rate has been falling for more than 20 years and is now at its lowest level since 1973, or almost 40 years.

Others would argue that it’s the severity of the crime rather than the volume that has given rise to this perception. After all, it doesn’t matter if there’s less crime in general if the crimes themselves are getting more violent and brutal. Again, though, the crime severity index has been declining for more than 10 years and is at its lowest level since 1998. Almost all specific crime categories showed a decrease, although there were some that showed an increase due to an increased frequency of reporting; sexual assault, for instance, showed an increase, but one has to balance that with the fact that as our society changes the reluctance that used to exist for people to report certain types of crimes is diminishing, leading to greater numbers of reports.

79% of crimes reported by police were non-violent, and in fact the severity of non-violent crimes fell for the seventh straight year. The youth crime severity index has also been steadily falling for the last 10 years, and of all drug offences reported half were related to pot.

So, all of this disproves the first requirement for new legislation and the creation of bill C-10. Crime has been decreasing for a long time, including its severity, meaning that communities are getting safer and are safer now than they;ve been in almost 40 years, no matter what we see on TV.

Which brings us to the second requirement, which is that longer terms of incarceration and more frequently putting people in jail will deter criminals from breaking the law. At this point, we bring in our poster boys from Texas.

Since before the Reagan years, the US has held a very firm and harsh attitude towards crime. Jails in the US house small cities, and criminals are put in jail more frequently and for much longer terms than we have traditionally seen in Canada. This is the whole idea of “getting tough on crime” in the US, and the basis of Harper’s C-10 bill. Nowhere in the US is this policy more prevalent than in Texas, home to George “Dubyah,” “wanted dead or alive” Bush. So, what do they say about getting tough on crime the way Harper is advocating?

“If passed, C-10 will take Canadian justice policies 180-degrees in the wrong direction, and Canadian citizens will bear the costs.”

On a recent trip to Texas, an array of conservative voices told CBC News that Texas tried what Canada plans to do – and it failed.

As recently as 2004, Texas had the highest incarceration rate in the world, with fully one in 20 of its adult residents behind bars or on parole or probation. The Lone Star state still has the death penalty, with more than 300 prisoners on death row today. But for three decades, as crime rates fell all over the U.S., the rate in Texas fell at only half the national average.

What Texas lawmakers discovered is that alternatives to prison were not only less costly to taxpayers, it was also far more effective in reducing criminality in the community. By stubbornly sticking to their original “tough on crime” stance, they were costing taxpayers enormous sums of money while not realizing the same decreases in crime that were being seen in other jurisdictions with different policies. They spent a fraction of the cost of building new prisons on alternative programs and both crime and cost fell.

Jails cost a lot of money to build. While an accurate cost of bill C-10 has not been identified by the government, estimates are that it will cost into the billions just to get things started and have the prisons constructed. The average cost of incarceration is about $180k a year, once the prisons have been built. And, all of this is being funded through “streamlining the public service,” which is shorthand for putting more people on unemployment.

So, we’ll take people in a fragile economy and fire them, which will force them to cost us money in unemployment insurance, decrease the amount of money being spent by consumers in our economy by having fewer consumers with the means to spend, and build expensive jails to spend lots of money on keeping people locked up to address a problem with crime that we don’t actually have, given that our current system has decreased crime for longer than I have been alive.

No wonder the Texans are saying we’re idiots.

According to the Texas Department of Corrections, the rate of incarceration fell 9 per cent between 2005 and 2010. In the same period, according to the FBI, the crime rate in Texas fell by 12.8 per cent.

By contrast, Levin says, the Canadian government has increased the prison budget sharply, even though crime in Canada is down to its lowest level since 1973.

In fact, federal spending on corrections in Canada has gone up from $1.6 billion in 2005-06, when Stephen Harper’s Conservatives took power, to $2.98 billion in 2010-1011. That’s an increase of 86 per cent. Soon, it will double.

The Harper government has already increased prison sentences by scrapping the two-for-one credit for time served waiting for trial. Bill C-10 would add new and longer sentences for drug offences, increase mandatory minimums and cut the use of conditional sentences such as house arrest.

In each case, Texas is doing the opposite.

So are several other states — egged on by a group of hardline conservatives who have joined the Right on Crime movement. These include Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, the tax-fighter Grover Norquist and the former Attorney General for President Ronald Reagan, Ed Meese.

That’s not a list of liberals. Marc Levin says Canada is out of step with the best conservative thinking south of the border.

No doubt any one of you will immediately think of something absolutely horrible and atrocious that you heard in the news that is a perfect example of the failure of the justice system. I can think of a couple examples, and have probably written about some of them as well. The media has a vested interest in the sensational. Did you die of swine flu last year? Or bird flu? Or any number of the other seasonal fear sprees that the media has told us are certain to wipe out the world population? It all seems very convincing, though, and when taken out of global context these sensational stories scare the crap out of us and ensure that we tune in to follow the story further.

Crime is no different.

Justice isn’t perfect, and we’ll always hear about terrible injustices that are sparse exceptions that run against the vast majority that define the rule. The statistics clearly show that our policies have been working. Putting Canadian taxpayers on the hook for huge increases in corrections spending at a time when the world economy is on the brink and we’re all worried about our financial futures is not only reckless, in view of the very real fact that those policies have been proven to be ineffective makes the spending irresponsible.

When we can’t even learn a little bit of reason and logic where the least reasonable and logical have already succeeded in changing their ways, as the American right wing has, what does that say about us?

Punish the criminal, but treat the cause of criminality and you’ll have fewer punishments to mete out.

Yahoo! article referenced in this post.
Stats Can crime statistics, from which the graphs were borrowed.

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