Tuesday, February 01, 2011

How about a citizen's arrest of politics trumping rational debate?

So often when it comes to crime policy, politics seems to trump parliament’s role of examining legislation to ensure it will truly be effective and will meet the intended goals without unintended consequences.

We’re about to be hearing a lot in parliament about citizen arrests.

The recent debate was sparked when a shopkeeper in Toronto's Chinatown, David Chen, was charged with assault and forcible confinement after he and two of his employees confronted a man who had stolen plants from the store an hour earlier, tied him up and threw him into the back of a van. Current law allows a citizen to make an arrest only while a crime is in progress.

Chen was ultimately acquitted of the charges, but the fact that he was charged at all upset fellow store owners and politicians.

Chen’s case captured public and media attention, and all the federal parties were quick to rally to the cause and propose legislative changes to make citizen arrests easier. Liberal and NDP MPs introduced private members bills, and the Conservatives are set to introduce government legislation

While I’m sympathetic to Chen’s cause, and I’m pleased with the outcome of the case against him, I think we’re treading on dangerous ground here. Changing criminal law and writing legislation in response to single incidents that garnered lots of media attention may be good politics, but it’s not the best way to design a justice system.

Already, we’re hearing lots of concerns raised about the proposed changed to citizen arrest laws:

"The traditional policy of the law has been to try and leave arrests up to the professionals -- the police -- wherever possible," said Jonathan Dawe, a criminal lawyer and adjunct professor at the University of Toronto.

"There is a concern that untrained citizens might arrest in situations where it isn't really justified, and a further concern about citizens putting themselves in dangerous situations where someone -- themselves, the person they are arresting or innocent bystanders -- might get hurt."

Now, in theory, the role of Parliament is to examine and vet proposed legislation. The Conservative bill would go to committee, where people like Dawe would be invited to testify and be questioned by the committee members, possibly leading to amendments to improve the legislation and raise concerns addressed.

How likely is that to happen here? Not likely; not when all three parties (don’t know about the BQ) want to ride this bandwagon.

This is likely to be a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with how Parliament deals with crime legislation today. It will likely be pushed through quickly and with minimal examination. No one will want to object too strongly, lest they find themselves on the wrong side of a PR disaster.

Everyone is so dammed afraid of being tagged with the dreaded “soft on crime” label that flawed legislation isn’t challenged anymore. And never mind a comprehensive approach to crime, such as harm reduction, prevention, youth programs, and so on. It’s flawed put politically popular “get tough” measures that are usually more show than substance, and almost invariably have been proven ineffective.

Maybe it’s a product of our perpetual minorities. In a four-year mandate, I think everyone would be more willing to take a long-term approach and make politically unpopular but correct decisions. But when you could be heading to the polls at any time, no one wants to be caught offside.

Whatever the reason, it’s an unfortunate trend that, ironically, is only preventing actual, meaningful and effective crime legislation from being passed.

Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers


WesternGrit said...

Good post... And it IS the problem with minority gov'ts that leads to this type of scenario. What we need to do to battle the mentality is to ensure that the words of the top social scientists (who know the so-called "tough on crime" approach doesn't work) are heard in the public debate.

WesternGrit said...

... it's all about the government wasting tax-payers dollars on mega-jails... Repeat after me...

ridenrain said...

Didn't we completely change the gun regulations because of one shooting in Montreal though?
Didn’t seem to make a difference though.