18 February 2009

Crime: prevention or punishment?

With the recent spate of gang shootings in Vancouver, the hue and cry for tough measures is in full force. One is hard pressed not to join the chorus. When shooting people in broad daylight seems to be turning into a street sport, forceful action is called for. More police might be a good idea. The mayor of Vancouver, Gregor Robertson, has pointed out how understaffed his police force is compared to Toronto and particularly to Montreal.

The federal government focuses on stricter laws. Ottawa has already introduced mandatory minimum sentences for weapons offences. Public Safety Minister Perter Van Loan would now like to go further and introduce mandatory minimums for drug crimes, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the major contributor to drug violence is the illegality itself. Just how much tougher sentencing will help is moot. The United States incarcerates seven times as many people as we do, mostly because of drug offences, and Americans are hardly safer because of it. The only result is the world's largest prison bill.

Ultimately, the solution is prevention, dealing with the roots of criminal behaviour. Essential to that is understanding those roots. Here surprisingly, the federal government is reducing its efforts. One of Canada's top researchers in identifying why children develop serious behavioural disorders, McGill University's Michael Meany, has seen his federal funding dry up. Meany is recognized as a a world leader in investigating the interaction between genes and the environment. His research, investigating why some children survive impoverished, stressful childhoods unscathed while others develop serious problems, should ultimately be able to determine the conditions that lead to psychopathological behaviour, i.e. to crime. Meany has recently been asked to set up a similar program in Singapore, for which he will receive eight times the funding he received here, funding that has now been discontinued.

This kind of knowledge won't prevent gang shootings on the streets of Vancouver today. It will, however, assuming it's acted upon of course, provide solutions in the long term. But the long term begins today. Unfortunately our federal government seems reluctant to take the first step.

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