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Kneejerk thinking not needed

Talking tough on crime helped Stephen Harper secure his majority government. Many Canadians bought into the rhetoric, despite the facts. Crime rates are declining even as the government pledges to spend billions of dollars more. Adding to the problem is the fact the Conservatives worked steadfastly to hide just how much their unneeded pet project is going to cost. By Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page’s calculations, at least $10 billion, a few times more than the figures the government is even willing to acknowledge.

It’s probably asking too much, but the majority win gives Harper the chance to back away from the program, saving the money for deficit fighting or channeling into more productive avenues. If reducing crime is really the goal, building prisons is not the answer: crime prevention is.

The numbers are telling. Page notes that a projected increase of 4,200 prisoners would require $1.8 billion in new facilities, plus another $3 billion each year to operate them. The costs of keeping prisoners varies from $140,527 to $223,687 for a man, depending on the security level of the prison. For women, the cost is $343,810.

All told, annual spending on prisons would hit at least $9.3 billion in the next five years, up from $4.3 billion today.

Critics say the money would be better spent on much cheaper and far more effective prevention strategies, including the reduction of child poverty and a host of social improvements dismissed by the government.

Fact is, politicians of a certain kind love to play the law-and-order card. Certainly we saw that in the election campaign, with the hardball Conservative ads accusing opponents of being soft on crime – a favourite putdown.

Most of us want criminals and their associates scooped up off the streets and incarcerated, preferably forever. The howls of outrage are loudest when a heinous crime is perpetrated by a felon out on bail or parole. Such cases are common, unfortunately. When it comes to crime, a harsh crackdown is often the public’s desire. Treating offenders in a manner outside of the standard system – perhaps reconciling offenders and their victims – strikes many as counterintuitive. Yet that’s exactly what groups such as Waterloo Region’s Community Justice Initiatives advocate, including restorative justice programs pioneered locally.

Restorative justice is a way of addressing conflict and crime that engages the person who caused the harm, people who were affected by the harm, and the community.

The Kitchener-based group is known for having created the first restorative justice program.

The launch goes back to 1974, to what has become known as the “Elmira case” – Woolwich roots for the concept.

Back in May 1974, two 18-year-olds – Paul Leibold of Elmira and Russell Kelly of Mount Forest – went on an overnight vandalism spree in Elmira. The pair was linked to 23 complaints of property damage.

Although nothing of the sort had been done before, a judge let the two youths meet with the victims. The idea was to let them see the consequences of their actions, and to try to make good on the vandalism.

Since that time, supporters of alternatives have been fighting something of an uphill battle trying to convince people that vengeance and punishment aren’t always the best way to go when dealing with wrongdoers … nor their victims, for that matter.

If the goal is to make our communities safer, then prevention and diversion have a better chance of making that a reality, they argue.

The support system extends right back to early childhood – it’s the ounce-of-prevention theory. An investment in childhood well-being pays dividends 20 or 30 years down the road. And therein lies the problem: that’s long-term thinking in a short-term world.

Politicians are worried about the latest polls and the next election. Putting more cops on the streets, introducing minimum sentences and even building more jails can be done relatively quickly and in a highly visible way. Many of today’s elected officials aren’t likely to be around, let alone running for office, in two or three decades, so there is no self-serving incentive to plan that far ahead.

However, simply building more prisons is no answer, as we’ve seen in the U.S. Between 1970 and 2000, the general population grew by 40 per cent, the prison population by 500 per cent, aided by a push for private, for-profit mega-prisons.

At the same time, cuts have been made to crime prevention and victims’ aid programs. As well, policies have exacerbated the link between poverty and crime rates.

We’ve seen similar changes here under the Conservative government, including a 70 per cent cut to crime prevention funding.

There is no easy solution. Prevention involves a host of issues, starting with good environments for children. Housing, daycare, schools, the economy all play a role. Linking them in the public’s mind is an important step in creating a future with less crime and violence.

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