Mothers of Intention: To Be Tough on Crime, Do You Invest in Prisons or Preschools?

American moms aren’t the only ones who get all fired up about politics.  With Canadian elections coming up next week, mothers up north are voicing their views on what’s happening in their country.  I’m excited to have as my guest Mother of Intention Annie from PhD in Parenting — a woman many of us know is definitely not afraid of speaking her mind — who weighs in on what it really means when politicians say they want to be “tough on crime.”  After reading this, it made me wonder if American politicians and Canadian officials try to drum up support using the same playbook.

Canada is in the middle of a tough election campaign which ends on May 2. This early election is the result of the Conservative government losing the confidence of the House of Commons. The Conservatives were found to be in contempt of Parliament for refusing to share information that opposition members needed to assess legislation before the House.

In this campaign, there is a significant divide between the issues and promises being pushed by the Conservatives and those being promised by the other four major parties: The Liberal Party of Canada, the New Democratic Party, the Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party of Canada. This divide can be seen on many issues, including the issue of crime.

The Conservatives “law and order” agenda

The Conservative Party of Canada has a plan. If re-elected, they promise to implement a “tough on crime” agenda.

Law-abiding Canadians expect to live in a country where they don’t have to worry when they go to bed at night; where they don’t have to look over their shoulders as they walk down the street; where they can expect to find their car where they parked it. – Conservative Party of Canada Electoral Platform

The Conservative promises include crackdowns on human smuggling and contraband tobacco, as well as promises to lengthen sentences and make it more difficult for prisoners to be granted parole. The Conservative party knows that this, along with other “law and order” initiatives they have implemented over the past few years, means that the prison population will increase steadily in years to come. In January, the Conservative government announced several prison expansion projects (construction jobs = economic recovery!) that would cost $158 million and create 634 new spaces. Overall, the parliamentary budget officer estimates that tougher sentences could cost between $10 billion and $18 billion over five years (source: Toronto Star).

Why this expensive “tough on crime” stance when crime in Canada has been steadily decreasing?

Canada’s crime rate is down 17% from 10 years ago and the crime severity index is down 22% from 10 years ago (source: Statistics Canada). But statistics don’t win elections; fear does. The increasingly gruesome and sensationalized media reporting on crimes combined with the fear mongering of the Conservative Party’s campaign may be more likely to sway votes than the reality portrayed through the statistics.

According to Statistics Canada, The Canadian incarceration rate is about 117 inmates per 100,000 population (compared to the United States rate of 760 per 100,000). The American incarceration rate, which is significantly higher than all other Western democracies, has quadrupled since the 1970s. Former Republican U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency head Asa Hutchison has warned Canada not to repeat his government’s mistakes. According to the Globe and Mail, Mr. Hutchison says the Republicans’ approach did not put enough emphasis on preparing convicts for release and that their mandatory minimum sentences often put people behind bars who did not need to be there.

If bigger prisons and tougher sentences isn’t the answer, what is?

Instead of simply lengthening sentences and increasing incarceration rates, Canada’s other political parties have proposed a variety of initiatives to help address the roots of crime. For example:

The Harper government’s narrow preoccupation concerning our communities has been punishing crime, and exploiting fear. The Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates that just one of their piecemeal sentencing Bills will cost federal and provincial governments $10 to 13 billion over five years, for building US-style mega-prisons. No one disagrees that criminals must be punished. But more prisons alone will not make our communities safer and stronger. That approach has failed in the U.S. Evidence and experience suggest it will take much more than prisons.Liberal Party of Canada Platform

This is followed by a series of promises on issues like affordable housing, fighting poverty, fixing problems with the long gun registry, establishing a task force to examine the systemic causes of increasing abuse and murder rates of Aboriginal women, and more. The Liberal Party’s platform also includes funds for early childhood learning and care across the country. The New Democratic Party’s platform includes proposed funding for an anti-gang strategy to ensure that our prisons do not serve as “crime schools”, youth crime prevention programs, and proper care and treatment for mentally ill prisoners.

They have also proposed a variety of social programs tackling issues like daycare and early childhood education, mental health, affordable housing, and poverty reduction. The Green Party and the Bloc Quebecois also have proposed significant measures to tackle poverty. In fact, all parties except the Conservatives have pledged support for the Make Poverty History goals.

Experts on criminal justice agree that this is the way to go. According to the Toronto Star article, Solving Crime? Tackle the root causes first, the steps that lead to safer communities are:

  • Reduce poverty and school dropout rates.
  • Invest in comprehensive childhood development initiatives.
  • Make housing affordable.
  • Increase access to health care and rehabilitative programs.
  • Reduce incarceration rates, partly through alternatives to jail, and direct savings to neighborhoods with a high number of offenders.

While ignoring the cost of proposed mega-prisons and new fighter jets, supporters of the Conservatives ask: “Where is the money for those social programs going to come from?” The parties all have budgets that outline the proposed sources of revenue for their spending promises. However, experts on crime reduction suggest that with time the cost of those programs could be erased through lower crime rates. According to the Toronto Star:

Attacking root causes doesn’t have to be expensive, especially if savings from reduced incarceration are reinvested in troubled neighbourhoods. With crime costing an estimated $70 billion annually, $1.8 billion of it for prisons, cost-benefit analyses have repeatedly shown such investments would save many more billions in the long run.

The “tough on crime” choice facing Canada

Our country has a choice when it comes to the “tough on crime” agenda:

  • We can support programs such child care funding to help care for and educate children for about 8 hours per day when they are young or we can defer the payment and pick up the tab with 24 hour a day maximum security care when they are older.
  • We can help low income Canadians feed their families and lift themselves out of poverty or we can pay for three meals a day for an increasing roster of inmates.
  • We can invest in affordable housing programs or we can pay for expensive prison cells.
  • We can ensure access to mental health services for Canadian youth and families or we can pay to lock them up when they cannot take it anymore.

Certainly not every undereducated, poor, homeless or mentally ill person becomes a criminal and not every criminal is undereducated, poor, homeless or mentally ill. However, we do know that addressing those issues and addressing them early will significantly decrease crime rates, improve the quality of life of Canadians, and save us money in the long run. Are Canadians so short sighted that we would rather pay to lock everyone up now than invest in a better future? I hope not.

Can moms save the vote?

In past elections, around half of Canadian moms didn’t bother to vote. This sad reality, along with the fact that many Canadian moms on social media didn’t seem to be talking about the election, led Emma Waverman and Karen Green to start the “Mom The Vote” initiative a few weeks ago. Using #momthevote on twitter and a Mom The Vote facebook page, they encouraged moms to engage in an online discussion of election issues. The discussion on both channels has been extremely active in this campaign where many of the political parties have platforms specifically addressing family issues.

Whether the active discussion translates into more votes by moms remains to be seen. But if it does, those moms could be part of a tide of change in our country. Polls have been showing a significant increase in support for the New Democratic Party across the country, but in particular from women, voters under age 45, and Quebeckers. The “Mom the Vote” crowd could be part of a shift from a “tough on crime” agenda that focuses on locking more people up for longer periods of time to an agenda focused on addressing issues of importance to families, which coincidentally also happen to address the root causes of crime.

Annie is a social, political and consumer advocate on issues of importance to parents, women and children. She has been blogging about the art and science of parenting on the PhD in Parenting Blog since May 2008. Annie has been covering the Canadian election on her own blog, as well as on Care2 Causes blog and The Bad Moms Club. You can find her on twitter (@phdinparenting) and Facebook (http://facebook.com/phdinparenting).

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One Response to “Mothers of Intention: To Be Tough on Crime, Do You Invest in Prisons or Preschools?”

  1. karengreeners Says:

    Who says Canadian politics are boring? I’m excited, and to be truthful, a little afraid, to see what happens Monday.


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