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Spring 2007 Edition

The Reporter

double line
scales of justice

Community Issues in Criminal Justice

“The ruthless pursuit of
profit creates a
criminogenic society.”

             Robert K. Merton

Can Tough on Crime Policies Give Us Safe Communities?

“Safe communities” and “tough on crime” initiatives seem to have moved to the top (or at least close to the top) of the agendas of the federal government of Canada, and a number of provincial governments. This is, at least partly, a good thing insofar as safe communities are the very raison d’etre of John Howard Societies in Alberta and across Canada. Hundreds of staff and thousands of volunteers from John Howard Societies are working 24/7 to make our communities safer. But they are doing so by focusing on rehabilitation of offenders, and promoting preventative measures in the community based primarily on the principals of crime prevention through social development [CPSD].

The other part of this dichotomy, “tough on crime”, is in fact a misnomer – everything that is talked about, and proposed by way of criminal legislation and policy is not directed at “getting tough on crime”, but rather, is directed at “getting tough on offenders”. These are very different things:

  • “Tough on crime” is little more than a cliché that amounts to a political or social philosophy;
  • “Tough on offenders” is symbolical, but has never achieved the result of making communities safer.

So what do we mean when we say that getting tough on offenders is “symbolical”? The pre-eminent contemporary American scholar of criminal justice is Professor Franklin E. Zimring. He is, among other things, the William G. Simon Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley, and thefirst Wolfen Distinguished Scholar at the University of California. In his book, Three Strikes and You’re Out in California: Punishment and Democracy, he says this:

[There is] the . . . assumption that virtually all issues of punishment policy can be reduced to a zero-sum competition between crime victims and criminal offenders. Whether the question is prison terms for burglars, registration of sex offenders, or recreational facilities in state prisons, the notion of zero-sum competition asks the voter to decide the issue by choosing between offenders and their victims. The implicit assumption is that anything that is bad for offenders must be beneficial to victims. As a matter of utilitarian reasoning this approach has little merit, but as political rhetoric it is both versatile and appealing. Once every policy question becomes a status competition, the appropriate result is a foregone conclusion. Instead of calculating costs and benefits, all citizens must do is choose sides The rhetorical versatility of this conception is quite astonishing. No punishment is too extreme if anything that hurts offenders benefits victims.

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