As it seems to be Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett’s week to man the fort in Ottawa, she called a press conference this morning to draw attention Statistics Canada's release of its annual crime statistics. The overall volume of crime has gone down another five percent, and we’re seeing the lowest levels of reported crime since 1973. Hence, her call, on the Liberals behalf, for the Conservatives to change course on their “tough on crime” agenda, which will make things worse. After all, putting people in increasingly crowded jails for longer periods actually leads to greater recidivism levels, as well as a host of other problems.
Citing the recent figure of an 86 percent increase in prison spending under the Conservative government and the recent finding of contempt of Parliament for failing to produce accurate costing figures on the “tough on crime” bills, Bennett wondered how the government could justify its one-size-fits-all policies and spending in the face of falling crime rates. She also noted that the report shows that 52 percent of drug offences are for possession of cannabis, which she used as an example of how the government’s priorities are wrong.
“Moving forward, our party will closely examine the legislation this government brings forward, but we can expect it to cost the bills and not hide the costs from Canadians, and we hope that it will take a more comprehensive and holistic approach to dealing with these crimes,” Bennett said.
I asked Bennett a couple of questions.
Does she have any estimated figures for the public health costs of keeping people in jail longer, given HIV and Hepatitis C infection rates in prison?
“I know [Correctional Investigator] Howard Sapers has been very worried about this,” Bennett said. “I know that, if you look at the government’s failure to move on methadone – other than those who have come into prison on methadone – and also its absolute refusal to accept the need for harm reduction and needle exchange in prisons. Even though Hep C may be 30 percent across the prison population, it may well be 50 percent in certain institutions. I believe a number of years ago, Joyceville penitentiary was 50 percent. Again, because of ideological approaches, this government is doing nothing but increasing the sickness of the population and the healthcare costs of the population. With Hepatitis C, this is a disaster in terms of liver transplants, all of the things that can end up, let alone the extraordinary costs of HIV/AIDS within the population.”
I also asked whether she had any examples of the drug courts and mental health courts proving successful, as her former colleague, Mark Holland, talked about them during the election.
“A lot of people have been trying to increase the number of these. The drug court has tended to be voluntary. People choose that path, and are, therefore, highly motivated to be successful,” Bennett said. “I was at a drug court graduation ceremony once in Toronto in Judge Paul Bentley’s court, and it was quite exciting to see people who’ve been clean for the first time of their lives. It’s been a real success in how they see themselves now and how almost every one of the their crimes was because of their dependence on drugs and their need for cash. Some of these small robberies, under $5000, are the kinds of things that we’re seeing here in these numbers. I think a lot of these numbers would be related to the drug dependency."
“On mental health, I can’t tell you the number of times that people, during this election, were appalled at these numbers, as though prisons are this government’s housing and mental health policies. This is no way to treat people who have real problems with mental illness. They need help. Locking them away as criminals without any programs in there to help them get better, just releases them back to exactly what they know, which is, unfortunately, crime.”
So, although she gave roundabout answers, I’ll be fair and grant that public safety isn’t her file. We’ll have to wait to see just how effective an opposition the Liberals and the NDP actually are when it comes to the crime bills this time around, given that they rolled over, more often than not, in the previous two Parliaments for fear of being labeled “soft on crime.”