29 March 2010

Incarceration: The high price of easy answers

At a time of budget-cutting in Ottawa, Corrections Canada is scheduled for an increase of a whopping 27 per cent over the next three years. Now why might this be? Is crime getting out of control? Well, no, crime rates are actually falling. Are prison populations rising at nine per cent a year? Well, no, actually they've been rising at less than four per cent over the past five years. Ah, but will more incarceration lead to greater protection for the public? Well, no again. Criminologists seem to be in general agreement that longer sentences don't reduce crime rates. So why in heaven's name are we expanding the prison system at nine per cent a year?

The quick answer is that getting "tough on crime" is politically popular. And the underlying reason for that is an aging population. Crime is a young man's game, so as the proportion of young men in the population declines, as it has been doing, the incidence of crime declines accordingly. But of course as the proportion of young people declines, the proportion of old people increases, and older people tend to be more afraid of crime. The result is an inverse relationship: as the crime rate goes down, concern about crime goes up.

The easy political response is to lengthen sentences and build prisons. The responsible political response is to mitigate the concern by educating the public to the facts, i.e. crime rates are falling, we are becoming safer every day, and stuffing offenders in prison for longer periods won't make us any safer. Unfortunately, it appears this is not what our current government has in mind. Their lack of leadership is going to waste a lot of our money.

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