Tough on Crime… con’t.

The message to all and sundry is clear – doing what you can do (and get away with) is not only acceptable, it’s at the very foundation of our social system – the so-called “free market” system.

In a very real sense, it’s quite remarkable that the vast majority of the population doesn’t completely buy into this message. Most citizens do care (admittedly in varying degrees) about the health of their community, and don’t put their personal gain
ahead of all else, at the expense of any others.

Most of the time, most people do what they ought to do, not what they can do (and think they can get away with).

Still, within the ranks of those with power and authority, those one might reasonably expect to set the standard of community-mindedness and doing what ought to be done, it has now become almost a daily occurrence that someone is found to have used their position of power and authority to advanced their personal gain (or agenda) by doing what (they think they) can do, rather than what they ought to do. And that brings us full circle, because in a very real sense, a policy agenda that amounts to getting tough on offenders is equivalent to a policy agenda of doing what you can do to offenders, not what you ought to do to offenders. And it is most certainly the very antithesis of doing what you can do, or indeed
ought to do for offenders.

Why would we do anything for offenders?

So long as one is caught up in the rhetoric of “tough on crime”, and the zero-sum game of “offenders v. victims”, there is no reason to do anything for offenders, and every reason to do something to them (i.e.: harm them). So we come back to the question of
whether, at the end of the day, such a course of action will have any impact on making our communities safer.

Criminologist Peter MacNaughton-Smith, as quoted by Professor Michael Jackson in Justice Behind the Walls (at page 22)5, comments on the history of penal policy and its probable impact in making communities safer:

Criminals are wicked (and we are rather good) but they are not really wicked, they’re sick (so I suppose that we are not really good, we’re just healthy) and in any case it doesn’t matter which they are because the things they do are dangerous and inconvenient (and what everyone else does is always safer and more convenient) and we have to teach them a lesson, which they won’t learn because they’re incorrigible, and we have to integrate them back into the community, and also symbolize society’s rejection of them. The young ones are the worst and we must spare them the shame of being treated like real criminals. Now some of these clichés may well be true, or well not be, but they cannot be true all at once; we shall not believe anyone who asserts too many of them together. They are rather like proverbs: you can find whatever you want. Which ones the powerful members of society believe are true will surely make a difference to what society does; yet human society as a whole, over nearly all of its geography and history, has done very similar things in the name of the law and has offered whatever reasons happen to be in fashion at the time. When the reasons change and the activity remains, the reasons begin to look like excuses . . . In our own age (perhaps it is the age of mystification) the reasons advanced almost proudly in self-contradictory pairs such as justice and rehabilitation. But as George Bernard Shaw says:

“now if you are to punish a man retributively you must injure him. If you are to reform him you must improve him. And men are not improved by injuries. To propose to punish and reform by the same operation is exactly the same as if you were to take a man suffering from pneumonia and attempt to combine punitive and curative treatments. Arguing that a man with pneumonia is a danger to the community, and that he need not catch it if he takes proper care of his health, you resolve that he shall have a severe lesson, both to punish him for his negligence and pulmonary weakness and to deter others from following his example. You therefore strip him naked, and in that condition stand him all night in the snow. But as you admit the duty of restoring him to health if possible, and discharging him with sound lungs, you engage a doctor to superintend the punishment and administer cough lozenges made as unpleasant to the taste as possible so as not to pamper the culprit. A board of commissioners ordering such treatment would prove thereby that either they were imbeciles or else that they were hotly in earnest about punishing the patient and not in the least in earnest about curing him”. (P. MacNaughton-Smith, Permission to be Slightly Free [Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1976] at 30 – 32)


5. Jackson, Michael, Justice Behind the Walls: Human Rights in Canadian Prisons, (2002) Vancouver. Emphasis added.