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Under the Harper Conservatives Canada experienced a considerable toughening of criminal justice laws.These included many more mandatory minimum sentences, restrictions on parole, much more restrictive rules for what used to be called ‘pardons’, tougher conditions for people convicted of sex offenses, and worse conditions in Canada’s prisons. There was also a big spillover effect to provincial jails, where many of the increased numbers of people arrested spend months or even years, whether on remand or after sentencing.
Many promises, little change
During and after the 2015 election, the Liberals made a whole series of promises on criminal justice reform in Canada. These included eliminating many minimum sentences, improving the parole system, restoring a better pardon system, making more use of restorative justice, reducing the incarceration of Indigenous people, improving conditions in prisons, and others. In addition, Canadian courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, weighed in. They struck down many mandatory minimum sentencing laws, set maximum times for people to come to trial, restricted the use of solitary confinement, and reminded the system of the importance of bail. Yet four years later, with another federal election imminent, virtually none of the promised improvements have happened. And in some cases, such as solitary confinement, the government has spent considerable public money resisting or appealing changes required by court rulings.
This lack of action is bad news for Canada in several ways. It means that many Canadians continue to face unjustified and unnecessary stresses and restrictions in their lives. Not just those in the justice system (about one third of whom will not be convicted despite being charged) but also their families and others around them. It means that public safety is made worse, not better, by policies that we know are ineffective. And it means the billions of dollars of public money each year wasted on ineffective policies instead of doing the things that would actually help people lead better lives and reduce crime.
The politics of crime
The lack of action on these issues must be due to the government’s political calculation that making the changes they promised would hurt them with the electorate. They must believe that there just isn’t enough public support to make the changes they recognize are required.
Crime is a resonant political issue because more than most public policy issues it engages primal emotions, in particular fear. And fear has always been a potent vehicle for getting political support; when people are afraid we tend to act blindly in ways we believe will protect ourselves, without a great deal of thought as to the consequences.
Changing the way people think about issues is never easy, and the more the issue is emotional, the harder it is. We do know that simply giving people more facts about a situation does not usually change their opinion especially if that opinion is rooted in emotion. Many things are required, including the kind of ongoing campaigning for change that has often been argued in posts on this blog, such as here, or here, or here. We have many examples of how public opinion has changed over time – sometimes fairly quickly and dramatically. Compelling stories about individuals are one important part of that process.
But while facts alone are not enough to change the way people think, having and widely sharing solid information is an essential part of the process. For example, data about the harms of smoking, or the harms of hitting children, or the life-saving effects of seat belts were all essential parts of changing law and practice on these issues.
Some options for a better public discussion
Right now research on criminal justice in Canada is very limited in scope, and even basic data are often hard to find or not comparable from province to province. For example, a recent Statistics Canada report on people in the prison system had to exclude several provinces that did not have comparable data. So one thing the federal government could and should do is support more research and better access to data. Compared to the billions spent on the criminal justice system, a few million dollars in this area would go a long way towards providing better information.
There are three primary sites where this work could be done – universities, non-profit organizations of various kinds, and government itself. In many cases research and analysis done by third parties has, rightly or not, more public credibility than does research done within government. Using these vehicles, government could help others make the case for reform without incurring the same political costs. Canada has previously ramped up research in priority areas by creating networks and other vehicles to bring people together and get more synergy from the research field. We have a strong track record in creating partnerships among academic researchers, community groups and others that do an excellent job in making efficient use of resources to do and share high quality research.
The number of people studying criminal justice in Canadian universities and research institutions is small, they are split among several disciplines (law, sociology, criminology, psychology) and research funding is very limited. Most Canadian NGOs in the criminal justice field, such as John Howard or Elizabeth Fry, or the Canadian Bar Association, or Indigenous or African-Canadian or other groups that represent people who are more likely to be embroiled with the justice system, are very small and only a very few have any real research capacity. Research within the federal government itself was also cut back sharply by the Conservatives.
A law reform commission?
Another strategy to improve public understanding is the use of commissions or expert panels or other sources seen as unbiased to build public awareness of the need for change. Canada used to have a Law Reform Commission that would issue independent reports on such matters, but it was abolished by the Harper government in 2006 and has not been re-established. The government might consider creating a new law reform commission or some equivalent that would have the duty and authority to issue public reports, based on solid research, on various aspects of criminal law and justice. Again, a small amount of money could yield a big dividend in public understanding.
These are steps that have a low political cost but could help Canadians make better choices in this important area.