The streets of Old Ottawa South have never been more dangerous. Convicted murders roam free, pedophiles lurk behind every bush, and our children are in constant danger. This is not our parent’s neighbourhood; we live in dark and dangerous times.

Of course none of that is true. The despotic image of dangerous, crime-ridden neighbourhoods only exists in the imagination of the tough-on-crime Conservatives. Given the Harper government’s track record on real issues – say the environment or the economy – the crime narrative is a necessary fiction, an exercise in distraction, which has little to do with increasing public safety.

The truth is that our communities have never been safer. Canadian crime rates have reached their lowest point in over 40 years; they peaked in 1991 and have been in steady decline ever since. This isn’t just a Canadian phenomenon — it’s happening in a lot of countries around the world.

Unless the Conservatives have mastered time travel — and unless their crime agenda is somehow spooking the criminal classes in Europe as well — the drop in crime rates has nothing at all to do with their new laws. According to the experts, it’s mostly about demographics: An aging population sees less violent crime.

None of this has deterred the Harper government’s legislative agenda. Since 2006, the government has passed law after law designed to crack down on crime. The Conservatives have eliminated house arrest for many non-violent crimes, doubled the number of mandatory minimum sentences, imposed harsh fines on impoverished offenders, and reduced the ability of paroled inmates to reintegrate into society.

All of this legislation has been sold as necessary measures to enhance public safety. Who could argue that we are not made safer by locking up criminals, expanding sex offender registries, and limiting parole – it turns out anyone who actually looked at the evidence.

So let’s look at what the evidence does tell us: minimum sentences and harsh incarceration aren’t effective at reducing crime, and do little to assist with rehabilitation.

The Library of Parliament has made this clear to the government through reports highlighting the ineffectiveness and the negative impacts of mandatory minimum sentences. A study published in 2002 concluded that existing research generally doesn’t support the use of mandatory minimum sentences for deterrence.

Just last month Canada’s highest court struck down another Conservative law as unconstitutional (not a rare even as of late) and found that the “evidence suggests that mandatory minimum sentences do not, in fact, deter crimes.”

One Canadian meta-analysis found that sentencing — whether an offender had a short or long sentence, or whether the offender was given a prison or a community sentence — made little difference in general recidivism rates. In fact, prison was found to produce slight increases in recidivism.

So harsh sentence don’t stop crimes from occurring and may actual increase crime rates – but what about sex offender registries you ask, surely they are a good thing. Don’t be so sure.

A 2008 study found that New York’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Law had no impact on reducing sexual re-offending by rapists, child molesters, or other sex offenders. Even worse A 2007 study found that notification systems are “more likely to undermine the stability of sex offenders than to provide the sweeping protection they intend to achieve”. In other words a major plank of Conservative justice policy may make our communities less safe.

 Evidence does not just matter in court; it also matters in our communities. How can the government maintain that its criminal justice policies increase public safety when real evidence suggests the opposite?

Tough on crime rhetoric is not just counterproductive and disingenuous but also caries real costs. Incarcerating offenders for longer periods results in increased prison costs to the taxpayer, which aren’t necessarily offset by any reduction in crime.

Spending on federal corrections has hit $2.7 billion – an increase of about a billion dollars since 2006. The average cost of warehousing a federal inmate has increased from $88,000 in 2006 to more than $117,788 today. This increase does not factor in provincial corrections, policing, or associated justice system expenses.

The bottom line is that there are better ways to spend a billion dollars — rehabilitation services, crime prevention, victims’ services. Any one of these options would make the Canadian public safer and make the plight of crime victims easier to bear.

A billion dollar ideological boondoggle that risks public safety should be a national scandal not a point of Conservative pride. It is time to get smart – not tough – on crime.

By Michael Spratt

Originally published in the Ottawa South Community Association Review Newspaper

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