Smart on Crime, Not Tough on Crime

homeless_boy.2e16d0ba.fill-400x400Graham[1] is a homeless, unemployed, drug addict who stole $10 worth of chicken fingers for dinner one night. After his arrest, Graham spent 6 weeks in pre-trial detention before the Crown agreed to a plea bargain. His arrest and conviction—for the $10 worth of chicken fingers he stole—cost over $7,000.[2]

This was not Graham’s first criminal offense. Graham has a lengthy criminal record, spanning more than 20 years, which includes criminal convictions for minor thefts and breaching probation. But Graham did not commit these crimes by choice. His criminality results from the broken Canadian justice system.

In 2015, more than 300,000 adult offenders were convicted of criminal offenses. The vast majority of them were not convicted of violent offenses: they didn’t commit murder, sexual assault, or cause physical harm to anyone. In fact, 75% were non-violent criminal offenses.[3] So Graham was in good company. Together he and over 9,500 other offenders were convicted of theft and breach of probation in 2015.

Graham’s crime was a crime of circumstance. Homeless and unemployed, Graham stole $10 worth of chicken fingers from his local grocery store for dinner. Prosecuting Graham won’t eliminate his criminal behaviour. Housing, employment, and addiction treatment: that’s how we eliminate Graham’s criminal behaviour. The whole system needs to change.

Every time Graham is prosecuted for a criminal offense, Graham engages with the criminal justice system. But every time Graham is convicted of theft or breach of probation, Graham ends up in exactly the same place: homeless, unemployed, and drug addicted. Our criminal justice system is failing Graham and the 9,500 criminal offenders like him. Rather than giving Graham access to resources that will pull Graham out of this seemingly never-ending criminal cycle, the system shoots Graham back out with another line on his criminal record.

And those criminal convictions will haunt Graham for the rest of his life. In 2012, the Harper Government made significant amendments to the Criminal Records Act—part of the Government’s ‘tough on crime’ criminal justice policy. Under the old regime, a person convicted of a criminal offense could apply to have the offense removed from their criminal record five years after completing his or her sentence.[4] But the Harper Government’s amendments have doubled this wait time to “increase offender accountability and responsibility, and modernize the disciplinary system for inmates”.[5] Now, a person convicted of the same offence is ineligible to apply for a record suspension for ten years after they’ve completed their sentence.[6] And during that time, to be eligible, Graham would have to refrain from committing any further criminal offenses.

Graham’s cycle of recidivism is not infallible. Government funded programs have helped criminal offenders find a life beyond crime. The Life Line Project, for example, worked to provide convicted offenders with the necessary skills to find employment and reintegrate back into society upon their release.[7] And while this program targeted offenders serving lengthy prison sentences, it could be adapted to provide offenders like Graham with the resources they need to break the recidivism cycle. Sadly, however, the Government axed the program in the 2012 budget cuts.[8]

The Government could also take its cue from successful privately funded programs. The Canadian Addiction and Mental Health Association Drug Treatment Court, for example, provides an alternative to incarceration for non-violent drug offenders, offering participants treatment, counselling, and lifestyle support to ensure they don’t re-offend.[9] 97% of Drug Treatment Court graduates remain drug and crime free. Specialized courts could help Graham deal with his addiction.

The numbers don’t lie. 30% of Canadian offenders are like Graham: convicted of theft or breach of probation; victims of circumstance, not criminal by choice. Being ‘tough on crime’ won’t mitigate this criminal behaviour. Canada needs to look to the underlying causes of criminality: homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction.[10] By addressing these systemic problems, Canada can be smart on crime.

[1] N.B. While facts provided are based on a real case, the identities have been changed to protect the parties involved.

[2] “At a Glance: The Human & Financial Costs of Pre-Trial Detention”, Canadian Civil Liberties Association (accessed 17 April 2017).

[3] Ashley Maxwell, “Adult Criminal Court Statistics in Canada: 2014/2015”, Statistics Canada (2 February 2017).

[4] Criminal Records Act, RSC 1985, c C-47 [Criminal Records Act].

[5] Canada. House of Commons Debates. 41st Parliament, 1st Session (21 September 2011) at 1525.

[6] Criminal Records Act, s 4(a).

[7] “The Life Line Project”, Corrections Service Canada (accessed 17 April 2017).

[8] “Prison Rehab Program Axed Due to Budget Cuts”, CBC News (accessed 17 April 2017).

[9] “About Drug Treatment Courts”, Toronto Drug Treatment Court (accessed 18 April 2017).

[10] See “Homelessness: Cause and Effects”, British Columbia Ministry of Social Development and Economic Security & BC Housing Management Commission (2001); Tim Riordon, “Exploring the Circle: Mental Illness, Homelessness, & the Criminal Justice System in Canada” (2004) Government of Canada. Stephen Gaetz, et al., The State of Homelessness in Canada (Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, 2013).


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