A crime debate without facts or arguments
BY DAN GARDNER, OTTAWA CITIZEN
I suppose I could write a substantive and serious column about the government's omnibus crime bill.
First, I'd explain the many proposals. Then I'd say they are a terrible mistake. They will not reduce crime, but they will waste billions of dollars, spawn injustices, and damage communities. Or so I would argue.
If I did that, I would cite evidence. Lots of it. There's a small mountain of criminological research to support my case, along with much fine writing by jurists and political scientists. There's also practical experience, here and elsewhere - especially the United States, where even rock-ribbed Republicans are having second thoughts about the policies Stephen Harper is importing to this country.
I could do that. It would be easy. I've done it before. Dozens of times. I've been writing about criminal justice policy ever since I became a journalist in 1997.
But there's no point. Not with this government, anyway. Not with this prime minister.
Oh, there was a time, years ago, that the Conservatives at least pretended to care about evidence. Not long after they took power in 2006, I heard a minister say in an interview that mandatory minimum sentences reduce crime by deterring criminals. So I called the minister's office and asked for the evidence that supported the minister's claim.
The minister's office sent a list of five criminological studies. I was impressed. An assertion backed with evidence: That's the way serious people deal with policy.
But then I found and read the studies.
It turned out that most were old, badly done, and, even if correct, actually only supported the deterrence hypothesis in certain very limited circumstances. More remarkably, the newest and best study actually concluded that mandatory minimums do not work. I contacted the American criminologist who wrote the study and told him the government of Canada was citing it as proof of the opposite. He laughed.
So I wrote an article, detailing exactly what the five studies provided by the minister's office actually showed, and noting that the minister's office had ignored heaps more studies that flatly contradicted the minister's claim.
The minister's response to my article? There wasn't one.
So far, so shabby. But it gets worse.
I later learned from a civil servant that the minister's office was flatfooted by my request for evidence. The Conservatives had long claimed that mandatory minimums worked. They campaigned on it. But they didn't actually have any evidence that this was true, so when I called the minister's office, the minister's office demanded the civil service whip up some evidence. Pronto.
What the civil service came up with was the best case they could make for the minister's claim. Lipstick on a pig, in other words.
Now, one might think the minister and his staff would have been taken aback by this experience. This was a key claim about a critical issue. And they had been forced to confront the fact that they had no evidence. Maybe that would make them worry a little. Experience some doubt. Even - let us speak in whispers - reconsider.
I don't know if they worried or doubted. But they did reconsider: From then on, the Conservatives stopped even pretending to have evidence to support their claims.
Not that they said they had no evidence. They didn't say anything about evidence. They just promised to cut crime by making punishments more severe and stuck their fingers in their ears when critics - criminologists, jurists, journalists - loudly objected that the evidence did not support their position.
Ministers did not discuss or debate the evidence. They did not engage. They just asserted. And smiled when the critics howled.
The reason the government took this approach is that it works. Not "works" in the sense of producing effective public policy. It's about the worst possible way to do that. But it is politically effective.
The prime minister's former chief of staff, Ian Brodie, said as much at a McGill University conference in 2009.
The leading critics are "sociologists, criminologists, and defence lawyers," Brodie noted. Eggheads and shysters. The public doesn't respect them. So let them howl. "Politically, it helped us tremendously to be attacked by this coalition," Brodie said. "So we never really had to engage in the question of what the evidence actually shows about various approaches to crime."
Of course this approach wasn't limited to crime policy, Brodie explained. The government handled the GST cut the same way. Almost every economist in the country said it was insane. But it was good politics. So they ignored the evidence and the critics and did it. "Despite economic evidence to the contrary, in my view the GST cut worked," Brodie said. "It worked in the sense that by the end of the '05-'06 campaign, voters identified the Conservative party as the party of lower taxes. It worked in the sense that it helped us to win."
So why should I bother writing a serious and substantive column now?
Research is a drag. Assessing evidence is boring. Marshalling arguments takes work. And the Conservatives have made it absolutely clear that they have no intention of engaging in a meaningful, evidence-based discussion about crime policy.
Maybe that will change some day. I hope so. This is important stuff. I'd love to have the sort of substantive, back-and-forth debate that helps the public decide what is and isn't true.
But until then, I'll simply make an assertion - this government is cynical, contemptuous, and intellectually bankrupt - and leave it that.