As policymakers in the United States are rethinking the country’s reliance on mass incarceration, both from a fiscal and a humanistic perspective, disturbing trends in Canada merit some attention–both because they are interesting and disconcerting on their own, and because they provide an interesting comparison to the Nixon and Reagan years.
In The Harper Decade, our Canadian colleagues are examining the impact of the Harper administration on a variety of issues, ranging from public services to environmental protections. Their conclusion across all these areas: Canada has changed, and not for the better.
Of particular interest to us is Lisa Kerr and Anthony Doob’s excellent essay The Conservative Take on Crime Policy, which examines Canada’s punitive turn during the Harper years. Kerr and Doob write:
There is no question that Harper’s Conservatives have talked tough about criminal justice, departing from the more moderate tone that has characterized Canada’s history on this topic. Before Conservative rule, Canada had a long tradition of allowing criminal justice experts – like judges and prosecutors – to make decisions in ways that were largely insulated from politics. One result is that Canada has been able to sustain a stable, moderate rate of imprisonment. Even during decades when violent crime was much higher across North America – when the US was busy generating the policies that would deliver its current situation of ‘mass imprisonment’ – Canada relied on imprisonment comparatively sparingly. Since 1950, imprisonment rates have varied between about 81 and 116 adults per hundred thousand Canadian residents. In 2005 the rate was about 104. Currently it appears to be about 115.
This tone of moderation in crime policy has changed. With the Conservative politicization of the field of criminal justice we have seen an uptick in rates of imprisonment, an increase in the severity of the punishment experience, and a new reliance on crime as a salient topic with which to mobilize political support. Harper’s Conservatives have overseen decisions to close prison farms, fire prison chaplains, strip judges of sentencing discretion, and increase the use of solitary confinement. The overrepresentation of indigenous people in our jails and prisons – already a problem under past governments – has also become worse during Conservative rule.
Kerr and Doob identify three key areas of punitivism: rhetorical change, designed to sweep the public into a tough-on-crime ideology; consequential change, which targets especially people serving long sentences for violent crime by diminishing their hopes for parole; and unconstitutional change, which includes reforms that may be short-lived because of their unconstitutionality, but waste legislative time.
One important difference between the Nixon and Harper administrations is that Nixon’s election campaign at least relied on some objective grounds: the massive rise in violent crime. Even commentators who argue that Nixon exploited this development to introduce, top-down, a massive fear of crime and combat the civil rights movement, do not doubt these numbers. By contrast, Kerr and Doob note–
the peculiarity of a desire to reform the criminal justice system – or at least talk about reforming it – at a time when crime is in a longstanding state of decline. Total crime in Canada peaked in the early 1990s and declined thereafter. Homicide rates peaked in 1977 at 3 per hundred thousand residents. In 2014, the rate was 1.46 homicide victims per hundred thousand residents. These patterns fit a larger story of peak and decline that has occurred in the United States and many other industrialized democracies. For well over a decade, Canada has been enjoying the same drop in crime as similarly situated nations. The causes of the drop in crime are not well understood. What is known for certain, however, is that the drop in crime in Canada has little to do with criminal justice punishment policies. Indeed, Canada’s imprisonment rate was remarkably consistent in the decades before crime fell.
In that sense, Harper’s government may more easily be compared to the increased war on crime and drugs during the Reagan administration. In the 1980s, crime rates in the United States started falling, but punishment continued to increase. Most U.S. commentators do not find a significant causal relationship between mass incarceration and the drop in crime rates, attributing most of the decline to better policing, gun control, and a variety of unrelated factors such as age. But even this factor defies comparison: Even in the years in which crime peaked in Canada, incarceration rates did not change much.
I think that one key factor that has facilitated Harper’s rhetoric in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is the fact that his conservative reforms, while senseless and damaging, are not–yet!–unsustainable. Canada was the only G-7 country that managed to avoid the financial crisis, and its recession was much milder than the U.S. recession. Here, the crisis acted as a catalyst of change, bringing together bipartisan allies to initiate cost-centered reforms. There will be many reasons for Canadians to regret Harper’s criminal justice policies for years to come, but they may not feel them for a long time because they won’t be hitting them in the wallets any time soon. But it’s also true that Canadian legislation in such matters is not as driven by financial and fiscal concerns as U.S. legislation, and it may be that, if enough Canadians are sick of Harper on October 19, much of this disturbing trend will go away.