Keeping Communities Safe From Crime
Public Safety is best assured by laws anchored in research and based upon humane and equitable principles.
The criminal law exists for the protection of society and requires an extensive system of police, courts and corrections in its application. The criminal justice system is expensive to maintain and imposes a significant financial investment on the budgets of municipal, provincial and federal governments. In addition and even more significantly, the criminal justice system impacts the very lives, human rights and freedoms of citizens. For these reasons, governments must be cautious in considering the expansion of the criminal law and the consequent growth of its required infrastructure. Changes to the criminal law should be well thought out, based upon an empirical demonstration of need, debated openly and formulated in such a fashion as to limit unintended consequences.
Attempting to legislate public safety by increasing the harshness of criminal sanctions has no positive impact on the safety of Canadian communities. Laws that run counter to criminological theory, practice and research-based evidence create unnecessary costs, further burden society and have disproportionate impacts on various sub-groups. Most importantly, they do not contribute to public safety. Instead they are a further drain on the economic and social resources of all jurisdictions and require governments to choose between investments that do lead to healthier and safer communities such as education, social programs, medical research and services or the expansion of the criminal justice system and infrastructure.
Criminal law that is not based upon sound practice and demonstrated results cannot be supported for long. In the 21st century one could not imagine programs in science or medicine being constructed on anything but empirical findings, yet that is where we often find ourselves with criminal law legislation. Over the years governments in Canada appear to have been taking their cues from our southern neighbour in producing harsher laws. In fact, many states in the United States can no longer support the burden of massive incarceration and have had to release unprepared prisoners under court order. A call has been made in the United States Senate for a complete review of their situation. While our level of incarceration does not approach that of the United States, the rate of adult incarceration in Canada at 117 prisoners per 100,000 Canadians, is already, in fact, among the highest in western democracies.
Rather than investing further in incarceration, resources need to be focused on community based preventive initiatives including early intervention with young people considered most at risk. Accessible community-based programs and services such as counselling, programs for children, parenting programs, support groups, education and employment programs should be provided. In order to reduce recidivism resources should be devoted to research and program evaluation to identify programs that are most successful in treating those already criminalized. As well, the federal and provincial jurisdictions must work closely together in policy and program development so that the criminal justice system operates as a cohesive whole. This would include improvements in the collection and sharing of offender information for management purposes throughout all parts of the system.
The increasing number of changes and additions to the criminal law over the last few years has led to overburdened courts that frequently must dismiss cases due to delays in timely processing. We suggest it is time that a comprehensive review of the needs and purposes of the criminal justice system be carried out by Parliament, including a review of the Criminal Code. The terms of reference of such a review will require consultation with the provinces and involved N.G.Os.