Harper Ignores Taxpayer-Funded Crime Research

The federal Justice Department pays to help publicize leading criminal justice research that frequently discredits the Conservative government’s “tough-on-crime” agenda.

And while the goal of the government-funded project is to “focus . . . on research that is policy relevant,” and provide a “general education” to those interested in criminal justice policy, the Harper government doesn’t appear to be listening.

The most recent issue of “Criminological Highlights” published last month by the University of Toronto’s Centre of Criminology, with federal assistance, blows gaping holes in several of Justice Minister Rob Nicholson’s most cherished anti-crime measures.

It also provides a very timely reminder of why Canada’s ongoing move toward more mandatory minimum sentences can lead to the kind of plea bargain arrangement that’s created a storm of public outrage around former Conservative stalwart Rahim Jaffer.

Mandatory penalties, says the research digest, “undermine the legitimacy of the prosecution process by fostering circumventions that are wilful and subterranean. They undermine . . . equality before the law when they cause comparably culpable offenders to be treated radically differently.”

In simpler language, people who can afford good lawyers cop backroom plea bargains to avoid harsh mandatory sentences, while the average Joe is hit hard.

The digest also matter-of-factly relates that “40 years of increasingly sophisticated research shows (mandatory minimum sentences) do not have deterrent effects.”

The extract is taken from a 2009 study, “The Mostly Unintended Effects of Mandatory Penalties: Two Centuries of Consistent Findings,” by American academic Michael Tonry.

That research, based on at least 16 studies of real justice systems — most notably the United States — appears to have gone unheeded by the Conservative government.

The justice minister declined to be interviewed to defend his policies, but Nicholson’s office, in an email, stated: “In our opinion, the studies are inconclusive particularly with respect to the main debate: do MMPs deter crime?”

Such research, claimed the government, “usually leads to automatic conclusions that MMPs do not work. There is little consensus on what does in fact deter criminals other than the fear of apprehension.”

What is certain is that mandatory minimum penalties increase prison populations at huge cost to taxpayers, which is why many U.S. states, New Zealand and Britain all are attempting to unwind such sentencing rules after many years of costly experience.

Federal spending estimates indicate capital expenditures on prisons in Canada will increase by more than 40 per cent in 2010-11 to $329.4 million from $230.8 million this year, although the Conservative government has refused to publicly detail the costs of its criminal justice agenda.

Nicholson’s office noted that mandatory minimums have a long history in Canada, and produced a list of 43 criminal offences that carry minimum sentences.

The list shows that 19 minimums have been created or beefed up since the Harper government came to office in January 2006. Another 12 were first enacted in 2005, when the previous Liberal government was fending off “soft-on-crime” accusations from the Conservative opposition.

Of the remaining 12 minimums on the books, eight deal with gun crimes and were enacted in 1995 in the wake of the Ecole Polytechnique massacre in Montreal, which also inspired the Liberal government of the day to create the long-run registry so despised by Conservatives.

“The great appeal of mandatory minimum sentences is that they give politicians the appearance of doing something, of being seen to be doing something,” Craig Jones, the executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said in a recent interview.

“You must never underestimate the need for politicians to be seen to be doing something — even if, in some cases, it’s the wrong thing.”

Other extracts in the government-funded February digest of crime research raise questions about Conservative moves to restrict house arrest, citing fresh research that proves putting offenders in jail rather than “non-custodial sanctions” actually increases the likelihood they will reoffend.

Another study found that first-time imprisonment, rather than scaring people straight as its proponents argue, leads to a greater chance they will commit more crimes.

The Department of Justice has been funding “Criminological Digest” since 1997, although Prime Minister Stephen Harper has explicitly and publicly stated that his government does not accept peer-reviewed research on criminal matters.

In a 2008 speech, Harper flatly denounced research-based justice policies, accusing the pedlars of such policies of trying to “pacify Canadians with statistics.”

“Your personal experiences and impressions are wrong, they say; crime is really not a problem. These apologists remind me of the scene from the Wizard of Oz when the wizard says, ‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”’

More recently, Harper’s former chief of staff Ian Brodie told a McGill University forum last spring that informed criticism of the government’s justice agenda is a political gift: “It helped us tremendously to be attacked by this coalition of university types.”

The academics, however, are not attacking Conservatives. They are deconstructing public policy.

As Prof. Michael Tonry notes in his research paper, as early as 1970 a Texas Congressman by the name of George H. Bush — a future Republican president — repealed most of the mandatory minimum sentence provisions then contained in U.S. federal law for reasons that researchers are still repeating today.

“The greatest gap between knowledge and policy in American sentencing concerns mandatory penalties,” writes the University of Minnesota law professor.

“Experienced practitioners, policy analysts, and researchers have long agreed that mandatory penalties in all their forms — from one-year add-ons for gun use in violent crimes in the 1950s and 1960s, through 10-, 20-, and 30-year federal minimums for drug offences in the 1980s, to three-strikes laws in the 1990s — are a bad idea.”

Not all criminological research, however, is anathema to conservative types.

Among recent extracts in “Criminological Highlights” are studies showing that aboriginal sentencing circles circles in Australia have no impact on reducing the frequency or seriousness of future offences, a devastating critique of “repressed memory“ used as criminal evidence, and a study that opposes criminalizing parents who spank their children.

– Article from The Canadian Press.