Thursday, March 24, 2011

My Log 243: Conservative tough-on-crime doctrine an insult to public’s intelligence

The main cellblock taken by ghostieguide dec 2...Image via Wikipedia

I have read a shocking thing in the newspapers this morning that seems to impugn the intelligence of “the older voter”, and, as an older voter myself, I want to refute it.

Apparently the Conservative Party thinks it has appealed to “the older voter” because it has promised to build more prisons. It seems to me that only an idiot could respond to the naked vote-pandering represented by the promise to build more prisons, especially since the government has refused to give any indication of how much these prisons are going to cost.

Even leaving the cost factor aside, I would hope that older people have enough commonsense to know that prisons are not the answer to crime, that Canada is not in the grip of a crime wave, that no more prisons are needed, that what is needed is a more sophisticated system that would keep more people out of jail, not put more people back in, and that for the government to pretend to be “tough on crime” by building more prisons is an insult to the intelligence of the people of Canada.

Many years ago --- 1961, to be exact --- I interviewed the man who headed the prison system in Sweden. He told me that in the whole country only 2,500 people were locked up. In many of his prisons --- some of which I visited myself --- the prisoners had the keys to their rooms. He asked me, “You will be wondering what happens when someone walks out…. Well, it doesn’t really bother us. We catch them, and they suffer for having walked away.”

At that time Canada was decades behind the Swedes in the development of a humane system of punishment for crime. In the years since we have made some progress, I believe, although I have also visited some of the maximum security prisons we have built, and talked to inmates who were being literally driven mad, many driven to suicide, by the strict, authoritarian regime foisted on them.

I would assume that older people, having lived longer than most, will have had time to absorb some of the information about crime, punishment, incarceration and the like, and have come to the conclusion that, although it is a difficult area of life, the tough-on-crime school, as exemplified in the United States, does not begin to approach a solution. Surely most old people must be among those who would abhor seeing us join the United States as the country that incarcerates the greatest number of people in the world, creating huge numbers of people stained with the label of criminal, for often relatively minor offences for which they are jailed for many, many years. Ridiculous.

Let me give an example of how our system is still, in so many ways, inadequate. My son is a lawyer in Toronto. Recently he was called upon to defend a man who had never had a proper defence, although he had been arrested, charged, tried and convicted many times. This man, a black schizophrenic, was one of those unfortunate mental patients who have been left to wander our streets, having been turned out, many years ago, of our mental hospitals.

This man was held in jail for eight months awaiting trial. When finally arraigned, he was presented to the court wearing prison clothes, in spite of the fact that his lawyer had several days before delivered street clothes for him to wear before the jury. The prosecution team kept presenting him in prison clothes until the judge threatened to make an order demanding that he be given the street clothes. This was a pointer to the negative attitudes adopted to this unfortunate person by our established system of law.

In the end, he was acquitted by the jury on all charges. But that was not really the end of it. The authorities who had charge of him dumped him in the lobby of the courthouse. He was a free man, supposedly, but he had nothing except the clothes he stood up in: nowhere to live, no money, no support system, no one to care for him. His victory, not to put too fine a point on it, was a phyrric one. Is this justice? Is our legal system even about justice? Can we not conceive of a system that takes into account not only the rights of the victims of crime, as the Conservatives always say they are insistent on, but the rights and lives of everyone who runs up against the legal system?

When I was a young reporter, and required to attend courts to report the proceedings, I very quickly realize the world is divided into two classes: the people who know how to look after themselves, and that large segment of the population that just cannot look after itself, that has no idea how to run their lives, people who are constantly in debt, who are desperately shifting to keep themselves afloat, and who end up in the courts of law, and in our prisons.

It is an insult to the public’s intelligence for the Conservative government to pretend that they are dealing with the problems of these people by building more prisons in which to lock them up.

On that ground alone, the Conservative government deserves to be beaten in this coming election.

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