16 October 2009

Crime and punishment, with emphasis on the punishment

How stupid, depressing and regressive. That was my reaction to the headline in today's Globe and Mail that read, "Ottawa will expand prisons to suit tough crime laws." The Federal government has doubled its budget for building facilities to incarcerate all those people who will be caught up in its new tough-on-crime approach. A very expensive way to keep Canadians safe.

And not effective. Criminologists seem to agree that longer sentences do little if anything to reduce crime. The real tragedy is that this money could be used effectively if it were applied to compassionate crime-fighting rather than retributive crime-fighting. Apparently about half the offenders in youth detention facilities suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome, and probably a similar number in adult facilities. If this money were used to ensure that all the pregnancies in this country were alcohol-free, crime could be reduced dramatically. Furthermore, considering that most criminals come from dysfunctional homes, if we invested in reducing dysfunctional family life another great slice could be taken out of crime.

If the Conservative government will not be swayed by compassionate arguments, they should at least be amenable to economic ones. Programs that help ensure healthy family life, that help create nourishing environments for infants and young children, have been shown to pay off many times over through reduced expenditures on crime and from the beneficiaries growing up to be working, tax-paying citizens rather than criminals. It costs over $90,000 a year to incarcerate a criminal in Canada. That would go a long way to fund approaches that ensure kids won't become criminals in the first place.

How I would love to see a headline in the morning paper along the lines of "Ottawa will expand programs to reduce fetal alcohol syndrome and family dysfunction." I suspect I will have to wait until Mr. Harper and his vengeful crew are long gone.

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