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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Let’s Get Serious

Nathan Raine
Published Thursday November 12, 05:03 pm
Tough on Crime has flopped, so let’s finally start addressing the real issues

In late October, StarPhoenix columnist Jordon Cooper’s son was mugged for his backpack — in broad daylight on his way home from school — in the core neighbourhood where the Coopers live. Cooper then wrote a column where he understandably questioned whether he could continue to live in the area when taking the safety of his family into account.

The most effective line of the article came when Cooper was talking about why this type of crime happens in the first place: “There are solutions, but no one really wants to get serious about it.”

The solutions he’s talking about, of course, have far more to do with preventing poverty and addressing social issues than they do with taking a “tough on crime” approach such as the one our previous federal government was so fond of.

Crime in Saskatchewan’s cities is perpetually among the highest in Canada, and it would seem we're doomed to top all the “worst of” lists — until we actually address the root causes of crime. Conservative politicians (including the likes of City Councillor Randy Donauer) have pushed for mandatory minimums, more severe penalties for violent criminals, and a “life means life” sentencing agenda. But Saskatoon Police Chief Clive Weighill has stated on several occasions that addressing the root causes of crime is a far more effective approach.

“Some people believe the best way to deal with [crime] is punishment and locking people away,” says Weighill. “In my opinion, you can lock people away, but if you don't have proper training, health and integration, they're going to go back to their old environment and you're going to replicate what you had to begin with.

“What we're talking about is very long term. This will not get fixed overnight, [and] we've got a long way to go yet to get to the root causes. In Manitoba, Saskatchewan, northern Alberta, and the far north, the aboriginal or First Nations population is far overrepresented in the criminal justice system — about 80 per cent. It all comes back to the topic of marginalization. There's so many issues that keep coming back, so it’s plain to see the social determinants here.”

Weighill says that while the federal government does provide funding to First Nations people living on reserves, very little money is allocated to those living in urban areas.

“We need funding to help them get a hand-up with better housing, better employment opportunities. They often don't have hope or a place to go, so unfortunately, sometimes crime is an alternative,” he says.

Weighill also points to the crisis of missing and murdered aboriginal women in this country as an area where the federal government could be doing more. The Harper government called it a crime issue — and while Weighill agrees with that on the surface, he also says it’s a systemic tragedy at its core.

“We're talking about women often living in poor conditions and poverty — it puts them in vulnerable situations. So if we can't fix this systemic issue, we're going to have to continue investigating missing and murdered women.”

When asked if the federal government has done enough to address the root causes of crime, Weighill pauses before saying, “I believe a lot more work has to be done.

“This is a very complex problem; there are no easy solutions,” he says. “This will be tough, but we need help from the federal government to bring these parties together and start conversations. We don't have a concentrated, coordinated effort. There needs to be some money behind it — this is an investment in our community, it's not just spending money. The return on our investment will be a healthier, safer, more congruent society.”

So: Why has government refused to commit more resources to addressing these root causes of crime? Simon Enoch, director of the Saskatchewan office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says that, essentially, preventing crime is harder to put on a campaign poster.

“I think the problem is that we live in a kind of ‘measurement’ society. It's easy to count the amount of people you lock away, but with social programs, can you point to how many people you've prevented from committing crimes?” says Enoch.

“This is a long-term investment. You're talking about committing over a generation to institute these kinds of interventions through social programs. It might be far beyond the life of the average political career. So I think as far as the electoral cycle goes, it doesn't really lend itself to generation-long commitments to social programs.”

But as Enoch also says, if you just lock people up without addressing the causes of crime, you simply punish the individual without dealing with the wider societal issues.

“If harsher prison sentences were a deterrent to crime, we would see that [countries] that have mandatory minimums and death penalties are free of crime — but they're not. Those places tend to have the highest crime rates,” he says.

“The approach is to keep as many people out of the prison system as possible, with things like alternative sentencing, [and] ensuring programs are in place so they have the skills and options to successfully re-enter society.”

As for government intervention, Enoch says that it’s been proven over and over that crime is linked to socio-economic conditions such as employment, poverty and addictions.

“From the government side, we need a general commitment to minimizing and hopefully eliminating those socio-economic determinants of crime. There’s a wealth of evidence that any sort of interventions that circumvent those things will reduce crime.”

There's tangible proof of this working in Saskatoon. For United Way's Housing First program, an initiative to house chronically homeless individuals, the results have been resounding. Of the 24 people who participated in their first year, United Way reports that brief detox services for the participants went from 647 visits to 43, while contacts with the police dropped from 316 to 116, and police detention for intoxication went from 89 incidences to nine.

Currently, the United Way is aiming to house 100 of Saskatoon’s most vulnerable people. According to their projections, if they remain homeless those people will accumulate an expense of over $7 million in public services over the next three years, while a $2.7 million investment in the Housing First program would save 82 per cent of these system costs.

“We need to get in front of these problems. I think Chief Weighill nails it when he says, 'You can't police your way out of these issues.' We really need the government on our side and working upstream to build solutions to these problems.” 

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