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Nabi: Tough on Crime? Not by a Long Shot

October 4, 2011
Stephen Harper’s government has been beating the “Tough on Crime” drum for years. Policies like tougher minimum sentences and draconian copyright reforms have formed the backbone of the strong, crime fighting Conservative brand. And now, with a majority mandate, they’re in a position to make good on those promises.

On Tuesday, the federal government unveiled the details of a new mammoth crime bill covering everything from stricter controls on house arrest to human trafficking to mandatory minimum sentencing. Fortunately, a law allowing the police to monitor your Internet without a warrant—which they call “Lawful Access,” and I call “The Big Brother Act”—was not included.

Crime is a sexy issue: it gets votes. People want to see wrongdoers behind bars, out of the public eye and away from their children. That’s why Tim Hudak’s proposal for an Ontario sex offender registry is a good political move, despite the practical and ethical concerns of such a system. It seems that pundits and experts try to rain on the parade of such proposals with their “facts” and “logical arguments” and “practical concerns.” We’re tough on crime! What’s not to get?

It’s noteworthy that the rioting youths in London have been sought out, tried, and sent to jail by the British authorities. Meanwhile, we’ve yet to punish a single person involved in the Vancouver riots this past June. Tough on crime indeed.

What’s more, the efficient work of law enforcement officials in England comes at a time when David Cameron’s government is set to make 2 billion pounds in cuts to the police force.

It’s not a good day for Stephen Harper when a coalition government looking to reduce their police capacity is tougher on crime than Canada’s “strong, stable, Conservative majority.”

There are really two issues at play here: an effective police force, and an effective judicial system. The government’s attempts to introduce minimum sentences are an affront to the decision-making abilities of judges. The rationale is that this will speed up court cases and make them more efficient—I’m not holding my breath.

Another wrench is thrown into the machine when you consider the impact this will have on the provinces. The new measures will inevitably cost a bundle, but what’s more interesting is that they will need to be implemented by provincial and territorial governments.

With Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, PEI, New Brunswick and the Northwest Territories all in the throes of an election race at the moment, this crime legislation could move the debate in a different direction.

Tuesday’s announcement of the Conservatives’ new omnibus crime bill doesn’t include a price tag yet. Given Harper’s history of methodically increasing transfers to the provinces (so as to decentralize decision-making power away from Ottawa), I don’t doubt his government will provide the necessary funding to implement these new measures.

Funding alone doesn’t make an effective judicial system—the British budget cuts make that clear. A 2010 Statistics Canada report gave the following suggestions for improving the efficiency of the court system: better scheduling of court cases, improving access to legal aid and establishing specialized courts for certain types of cases such as drug offences.

Needless to say, the government didn’t take this advice. Instead, it’s steamrolling ahead with the same tired rhetoric of keeping our streets safe and protecting Canadian families.

This disregard for staff expertise is nothing new and, frankly, expected from Harper’s caucus after five years of clinging to social conservative ideology at all costs.

At the end of the day, this new crime legislation doesn’t mean much for the federal government—all the real work is outsourced to the provinces. Maybe that’s why Harper seems so happy about it. If crime continues its declining trend, he can take credit for the success. If judicial efficiency doesn’t improve, he can blame the provincial leaders.

The status quo, which this legislation perpetuates, provides ample opportunity for self-congratulation and deriding provincial opponents.

In this light, it’s not a tough choice for Harper to be “tough on crime.”

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