Saturday, March 20, 2010

Prisons and Higher Education

Earlier this month, it was revealed that the Conservative Party of Canada intends to increase spending on our prisons ⎯ by way of creating more spaces, which is to say, imprisoning a higher proportion of our population ⎯ by 43%. This decision comes at a time at which they are insisting that our primary responsibility must be to cut back on government expenses and rein in the huge deficit: the budget is shrinking. So, when considered as a proportion of the latest overall budget, the increase in prison spending is even higher.

Naturally, if the circumstances were such that we desperately needed an increase of prison space to answer a corresponding increase in crime, this would be a very sensible and responsible manner of doing the nation’s business. But the true circumstances are far from this state of affairs. In fact, according to Statistics Canada Reports made available by the John Howard Society, the rates of crime in our country are lower now than they have been in decades.

Now, why is this the case? Well, there are many reasons, of course: improved methods of prevention, improved methods of detection, and ⎯ this is the one that the Conservatives and their supporters are reluctant to hear ⎯ less recidivism due to more enlightened concepts about the sentencing and supervision of felons.

The point about this last aspect of our judicial system is that is was set up in response to the recognition of a recurring phenomenon: patterns of recidivism demonstrated that our prisons were turning out people who were more committed to criminality than when they had gone in. It's actually a remarkably obvious point: spending extended amounts of time in company of people who have become career criminals ⎯ which most of the longest serving felons are ⎯ is more likely to inculcate a more sophisticated approach to criminality than to develop a determination to avoid crime.

In short, prisons tend to function as institutes of higher education in criminal techiques. Longer sentences are not harsher deterrents so much as they are like higher degrees: study longer and learn more.

By contrast, parole programs aimed more at the integration of convicts back into mainstream life based on their legitimately marketable skills are more likely to encourage a non-criminal existence. That’s also a pretty simple idea with which it would be difficult to argue directly.

However, as Stephen Harper has demonstrated, you can argue with it INdirectly, if you concentrate on anecdotes instead of statistics, and if you appeal to the fear of middle class property owners while ridiculing any opposing views as “soft on crime.”

Why would a person do such an irresponsible thing? Well, it probably doesn't seem irresponsible to them, because despite any evidence to the contrary, they feel deeply in their hearts that treating criminals more harshly MUST decrease crime, and they are so convinced that they are right about this that they have become incapable of considering any other point of view. Imagine that you have in your head an ideological conviction which plays a sort of brass-band marching tune that repeats endlessly, “Tough on Crime! Tough on Crime! Tough on Crime!” Well, then, you’d be deafened to reason, wouldn’t you? Demagoguery would be the inevitable consequence.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St Patrick's Day

Conversation overheard in the line-up at Tim Horton's between two international grad students, a Muslim woman from North Africa dressed in hijab, who was clearly a very recent arrival to Canada, and a Eastern European Jewish man wearing a yarmulke, who evidently had been here a little longer. Both are baffled, but determinedly polite.

She: "Can you please explain what is this day, this Saint Patrick's Day?"
He: "He is Irish saint. Very important saint for Irish church."
She: "So it is a Christian holy day?"
He: "Ummmm....This is not so easy to say..."