Conrad Black: Missing the point on crime

In early March, Calgary police issued a public warning about a just-released high-risk sex offender. Derek Ross Calf-Child served 56 months for what the criminal justice system now labels rather dyspeptically as “sexual assault causing bodily harm”; before morally neutral language was applied to modern crime, this was called violent rape.

The police gave a physical description of Calf-Child and also this summary: “Calf-Child has a lengthy criminal history that includes assaults on women and girls.” The police noted the convicted sex offender was placed under a peace bond and would be monitored for two years.

I could list a litany of such recent warnings in just Calgary, never mind elsewhere, so Calf-Child is hardly the only example. He is merely an archetype of what many Canadians think is wrong with the criminal justice system. It is why those same Canadians likely ignore the entreaties of Conrad Black, who as of late regularly inveighs against the Conservative government’s plan to spend more money on prisons.

To be clear and fair, Black makes no excuse for the type of criminal just described. In his recent column, Black makes a point of clarifying that “the most dangerous, repulsive and sociopathic criminal acts” are exempt from his general plea for prisons to be repair shops and not “garbage dumps.”

Well and good. But that caveat, or the mild decrease in crime which Black and others regularly cite, still does not justify the notion the Harper government’s proposals (including longer mandatory sentences and less flexibility for judges) are, as Black writes, a “reactionary and brutish reflex.”

There’s a reason the public and some politicians think some judges too soft and some sentences too short: Go back five decades and the overall rate of crime—the rate—is three times higher than now; the violent crime rate is five times that of its 1962 equivalent.

And here is more reality: Statistics Canada notes the number of violent crimes reported to police in 2009 totalled 443,284. In another StatsCan study (which surveys Canadians on if they’d been violent crime victims but didn’t necessarily report it), nearly 1.6 million Canadians said they’d suffered through a violent crime in the preceding 12 months.

Those 1.6 million Canadians represent “only” six percent of those aged 15 and over. But given that violent crime consists of sexual assault, robbery and physical assault, it’s hardly a negligible figure nor inconsequential for those attacked.

Even so–called “minor” crime such as automobile theft or a home break-in can indeed be problematic for individuals and a community. In a 2008 story from the National Post’s Brian Hutchinson, he noted how one Vancouver criminal, William Edward Marshall, had been arrested hundreds of times and convicted 148 times since 1979.

Still, because Marshall’s crimes were “only” property crimes, he kept receiving only revolving-door 30- to 90-day sentences. Vancouver cops were so frustrated with local judges that they released a 44-page report on that city’s chronic offenders. It revealed that “after 30 or more convictions the sentenc[ing] actually decreases.”

The results of policies and sentences that focus overmuch on the convicted show up most often in middle-class and poorer areas. For example, several years back, my elderly parents who then lived in a townhouse in a blue-collar Kelowna neighbourhood, were forced to endure a 30-something drug-dealing neighbour.

One summer day, while visiting my parents, I watched two women in a truck shoot heroin into their arms, heroin they obviously just bought from next door. I called the police but it wasn’t the first time (nor the last) that the “neighbour” was identified as a problem. He too benefitted from a revolving judicial door.

Thus, for those keen to let people out of prison, or to put fewer people convicted of criminal acts in, the onus is on them to show “it works” in contrast to the expense of keeping them in. While I suspect most Canadians don’t desire the harsh treatment of convicts, they are crystal clear about the relative ranking of public and publicly-funded priorities on crime: the personal safety and property of the public should rank first in any criminal justice system. Everyone and everything else comes a distant second.

As a result, my guess is many Canadians support longer and more consistent prison sentences for the neighbourhood heroin dealers; I’d further wager many also support life-long lock-ups of violent predators such as Calf-Child after the first offence. They likely support such measures not because they are unaware some crime rates have fallen, but because they desire its further decline. They properly understand that one aid to such an end (and no, not the sole method) is to ensure chronic offenders don’t get the 149th chance, and that high-risk, sadistic criminals never get a second chance.

In another column from last August entitled “Playing to the reactionaries”, Black asserted that “Imprisonment is necessary to protect society from some people, but for the most part, it is resorted to just because it always has been.”

I’m not so sure, and it’s that “for the most part” defence that is rather broad, this as if most people in prison ought not to be there.

While policy on prisons, as with any other, is worthy of the debate Black is more than capable of bringing, I think his analysis of what moves people here is in error. Far from being the result of heartlessness or supposed misinformation, public sentiment which prefers longer sentences and fewer “catch-and-release” games, originate in a thoroughly civilized and legitimate demand: that the existing victims and the always at-risk-public are the proper and first focus of political and judicial compassion.

Mark Milke is the editorial board chair of Canada’s Journal of Ideas, C2CJournal. ca, where this article first appeared.

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