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Harper's 'tough on crime' shtick doesn't make us any safer

Ask me to choose between public safety and showing compassion towards violent criminals, and public safety wins every time.

Ask me to choose between public safety and showing compassion towards violent criminals, and public safety wins every time.

You won’t win my vote by telling me that society is somehow obliged to show endless tolerance towards violent people out of sympathy for their upbringing and in the hopes that they can someday be rehabilitated. Show me a measure that actually improves public safety, and I won’t be put off by the fact that it is expensive and harsh on convicts.

You might think that would make me sympathetic to the Conservative Party’s “tough on crime” policies, which have been a cornerstone of our local MP’s regular (taxpayer paid) mail-outs touting his party’s legislative changes.

But I still believe in evidence-based policy, and the “tough on crime” agenda touted by Ryan Leef and his party has left me flat.

What is the goal of criminal justice? Is it to extract the proverbial “pound of flesh” from offenders or to make society safer? To my disappointment, the Conservatives have focused a lot of attention on retribution rather than safety.

The Conservatives have certainly made the lives of criminals more difficult by, for example, taking away the discretion of judges to waive the victim surcharge, and reducing the credit convicts can receive for pretrial detention.

But is being tough on criminals the same as creating greater public safety? The experts say no.

Criminologists tell us that longer prison sentences don’t actually make society safer in the long term. Longer sentences may make us all feel like the convict actually “got what he deserved,” but they still mean that a person will eventually get out - rehabilitated or not. So, at its best, the Conservative “tough on crime” agenda simply delays the inevitable.

Criminologists also tell us that increased prison sentences don’t deter people from committing crimes to begin with. There is a segment of the population that refrains from committing illegal acts for fear of a stint in the penitentiary. But your average criminal does not stop mid-crime and say to himself, “Hmm, I probably shouldn’t do this. The penalty was recently increased from three years in prison to five, and I’ll no longer receive two-for-one credit for the time I spent in pretrial detention. I also really don’t have the cash to pay the victim’s surcharge at the moment.”

This prime minister has given all indications that he doesn’t particularly care what the experts think on this subject. Nor do many other Canadians. Many don’t care if these tough-on-crime policies actually improve safety. For many people it is all about the vengeance.

I’m not going to lecture readers, as many others would, about the virtue of forgiveness or the folly of “an eye for an eye” I’m not that type of “bleeding heart” liberal. As a husband and a father, I can certainly appreciate that desire even if I don’t condone it.

My point is simply that if we are honest with ourselves most of these policies have not made us safer and have come at great expense to the public treasury.

Ironically, the Conservatives have done very little in terms of dedicating resources in a way that could make Canadians safer.

One of the most frustrating experiences for ordinary citizens is reading news reports that a particular violent or sexual offender is being released into their community despite being at a “high risk to reoffend.” Bewildered observers wonder why this is happening and find the retort that the individual has “paid their debt to society” wholly unsatisfying. Where is the concern for public safety? What about society and the victim they say?

It is something we have seen time and time again, and it is not difficult to understand the frustration.

And what have the Conservatives done to lessen these incidents? Very little.

One of the most powerful tools the state has in such cases is the dangerous offender designation, which allows for the indefinite detention of a person determined by the court to be ongoing threat to public safety.

To their credit, the Conservatives did tinker with the law when they first came to power in 2006 to streamline the process. The number of dangerous offender designations is up from 27 in 2006/2007 to 40 in 2012/2013.

But the process is still time consuming and expensive - as it should be, since indeterminate prison sentences are obviously a serious matter - and is rarely pursued. In the Yukon there are only two active dangerous offender designations. It is not hard to imagine others deserving of the label.

If society wants to ensure that public safety is paramount when it comes to violent offenders, it will have to devote the resources to this matter.

It is surprising that this has not been a priority for a purportedly “tough on crime” Conservative government, especially when we consider that it has devoted substantial resources to so many less effective policies.

Kyle Carruthers is a born and raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.