As a Liberal who would describe himself as socially moderate and fiscally conservative, I'm increasingly angry and frustrated with the inability and unwillingness of the centre/left to get smart on crime policy. Increasingly, we’re letting the conservatives define the terms of the debate as we cower in the corner frightened and whimpering, afraid of being tarred with that label of political death: soft on crime.
I remember being dumbfounded during the 2005/06 election campaign, when the Paul Martin Liberals included support for mandatory minimum sentences for some (gun-related) crimes in the election platform, a move to echo ineffective Conservative policy proposals that was also adapted by the NDP.
Mandatory minimums don’t work, the evidence on that point from the U.S. is pretty overwhelming. Criminals know what they’re doing is wrong and they know there are consequences, mandatory minimums aren’t a deterrent. They do nothing to prevent crime, they only increase prison populations. They're about appearing tough on crime without doing the heavy-lifting to actually prevent crime.
Yet mandatory minimums were back this spring, with the Conservatives proposing them for a range of drug-related crimes including, in some cases, simple possession. And while the NDP stayed offside this time (they were voting against everything at that point) the Liberals, rather than having the courage to call bullshit, rather than having the willingness and the gumption to argue (with the facts on our side, by the way) that this is an expensive and ineffective excuse for crime fighting legislation that will do nothing to address crime, instead took one look at the polls and the election possibility and, afraid of the “soft on crime” canard, supported the legislation.
And now, as I wrote yesterday, we see a trial balloon from Conservative justice minister Rob Nicholson about making a mockery of civil rights and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to “randomly” force people to submit to breathalyzer testing.
I was astounded, and I wasn’t, to see NDP leader Jack Layton immediately jump on board with this big-brotherish Conservative proposal, in a seeming abandonment of the core principles I’d have ascribed to the NDP:
The New Democrats would support efforts to craft a new law to curb impaired driving by giving police the power to conduct random breathalyzer tests, says Jack Layton.I guess civil liberties don’t mean much to Layton when it comes to appearing to be tough on crime to troll for votes. Sadly, my Liberals may be following down that same road. Don Martin, in a column where he argues in support of this thing, indicates the Liberals are supportive of the proposal although he doesn’t quote sources.
"It’s the kind of thing that could save some lives," the NDP leader said Monday outside the House of Commons.
Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh is quoted by the CBC as raising many of the same concerns I raised yesterday but, to my dismay, he doesn’t dismiss the proposal outright:
Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh, the former attorney general of British Columbia and a member of the House justice committee, said the question of whether any legislation would be allowable under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would come down to implementation.
"It remains to be seen what the actual legislation is when the minister brings it forward because we want to make sure that it's appropriately constrained and it's not too much of an infringement on civil liberties," Dosanjh told CBC News.
Dosanjh said the charter does allow for constraints on rights when they are deemed reasonable, but said he would need to see how those constraints are implemented before judging any future legislation.
"For instance... I wouldn’t want the east side of Vancouver monitored more than the west side of Vancouver because there is a clear economic division in the city," he said.
"We want to make sure that areas are not unnecessarily excessively focused on and that's why I think that we need to make sure that the legislation is properly drafted with appropriate constraints and guidelines for the police," he said.
I can’t believe my party is even considering this legislation which, to me, is diametrically opposed to what the Liberal Party of Canada, the party of the charter, has always stood for. And I’m surprised that I’m finding more alliance with conservatives, particularly I’m guessing libertarian Conservatives, in my opposition to this thing. Even the National Post’s editorial board thinks this is a bad idea. And while they occasionally publish my musings on the Web, the Post’s editors and I rarely, if ever, agree on policy.
So I ask again, why are we so dammed afraid of the crime issue? Why do we let the Conservatives falsely define the terms of debate?
We have the facts on our side, but we’re unwilling to even make the argument. Why aren’t we saying the Conservatives are soft on crime? Why aren’t we saying their crime policy is nothing but politically-motivated posturing designed to stoke public fears to win votes but that will do absolutely nothing to prevent crime?
Why aren't we pointing-out that, under the previous Liberal governments, most crime rates actually declined steadily, proof that the approach of balancing enforcement and detention with prevention and addressing root causes, being smart on crime, actually works?
Why aren’t we saying the Conservative crime-policy is half-assed? Why aren’t we saying that by ignoring crime prevention, by strangling crime reduction measures that are proven to work such as Insite, by doing nothing to address poverty and root causes, by focusing on detention and sentencing to the exclusion of all other areas of criminal justice, the Conservative crime policy is fatally flawed? That the Conservatives are ignoring measures that could actually reduce crime?
No, we’re not doing that. We’re too afraid we’ll lose and be labeled soft on crime. It’s pathetic.
I will grant that it would be a tough debate to win. It’s far easier to appeal to people’s demons than their better angels, its easier to stoke their fears than encourage their compassion, to sink to the lowest common denominator rather than raise the debate.
It would be difficult to do, but it would be the right thing to do. We have the facts on our side, we have truth on our side.
We might well lose the debate. But it’s not the debates that we lose that bother me. It's the debates we can’t be bothered to suit up for.
If we’re going to fall, we should fall standing-up for something.
Right now, we’re falling standing for nothing. Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers