Make punishment fit the crime

The federal Conservative government has been criticized lately for plans to build more prisons throughout the country.

The federal Conservative government has been criticized lately for plans to build more prisons throughout the country.

Personally, I’m thrilled. Just as hospitals are great places for people who are sick or injured, so too can prisons be great places for people who have made others dead, injured or poorer. 

Certainly, a big part of the equation is making sure the prisons are designed like hospitals, in that they have opportunities for their residents to better their situations in life so as to avoid repeat visits: addiction treatment, educational opportunities, family counselling, therapy, mental and spiritual health programs or even plastic or reconstructive surgery — research from the University of Texas (and others) demonstrates a positive relationship between cosmetic surgery and a significant decrease in recidivism. 

This is the rehabilitation side of things and further progress in this department is something Canadians should demand. However, Canadians should also be demanding more of the other side of prisons, the palliative side. The place where we look after people that we have had to give up on because it is simply more humane that way.

Now, before building more prisons, we should first use the room in the facilities we already have more productively by doing away with our completely ridiculous drug laws prohibiting large production of cannabis. As a special Senate committee on illegal drugs asserted: marijuana is not a gateway to harder drugs; it is less harmful than alcohol; and it should be governed and taxed by the same sort of regulations. Really, the main outcome of prohibition has been the protection of tobacco and pharmaceutical industry profits and, to a larger degree, huge revenues for criminal organizations. Some advice to the Conservatives: If you want to limit the consumption of a product that is tearing away at the fabric of our society, turn your attention to Auto-Tune.

Regardless, even if all the currently incarcerated growers and sellers of cannabis were set free, there would still be a need for some new facilities to house all the violent felons out there who really ought to be locked away for longer than they currently are.

Canada should adopt some sort of policy that would remove the burden from the police, prosecutors, judges and judicial system in general of having to determine whether someone convicted of a violent crime deserves to be designated as dangerous offender or not, and make the actual perpetrator responsible for determining their own fate: Perhaps a three strikes and you are out for 25 years policy for violent crime, along with first and second-degree murder becoming life-long, parole-less offences.

Many argue that such measures are not warranted because, according to Statistics Canada, violent crime rates are going down. The problem with that argument is two-fold.

Firstly, statistics can be misleading. Maybe, incidents of violent crimes have slowly been decreasing since 1999, however, if you look at the numbers from a 50-year perspective, they are still up more than four times compared to 1960s’ levels. It’s a matter of scale. It’s like ordering a super-sized Big Mac meal, shaving off a few calories by getting a Diet Coke and then calling it a diet.

Furthermore, a new report penned by former Crown prosecutor Scott Newark pokes all sorts of holes in the claim that violent crime rates are even dropping. Newark asserts the inaccuracy occurs in the manner in which StatsCan categorizes and analyzes its data. For instance, while homicide numbers have been dropping, Newark points out that attempted murders have not. When counted together, he notes, the number of potentially murderous acts actually rose by about 10 per cent between 1999 and 2009. Newark adds decreasing homicide stats may have more to do with progress in medical treatment than in a drop in violent crime. 

But stats be damned, my second point is this: Violent crime is a kind of terrorism and should be treated as such. I’m not foolish enough to suggest that we can eliminate it completely, but that ought to be the goal, not simply reducing it. And if by throwing thousands of repeat offenders in prison for much of their lives — at, I concede, a great expense to the country’s treasury — saves just one innocent life that would have been ended had just one of those offenders received a lesser sentence, I contend it would be a worthwhile endeavor, particularly if that life happens to be mine or yours or someone either of us cares about.

Indeed, if someone is in the regrettable process of doing away with me and I happen, as one of the last acts of my cut-short life, to stick my thumbnail in that person’s skin, thus capturing their DNA, I would like, as I lose consciousness, to be able to think to myself, “Welcome to hell, you son of a bitch,” instead of the lesser: “Gotcha, now you are not going to get to watch the next three James Bond installments on the big screen.”


Bruce Walkinshaw is a reporter with the Penticton Western News.