FACE TO FACE: Is 'getting tough on crime' a useful approach for our country?
In the wake of Alan Schoenborn's recent petition for supervised Starbucks trips and Chimo Pool dips, many of us have responded with justified anger. Unfortunately, our anger over such individual snafus has led us to an over-simplified view of our justice system.
"Throw him in the slammer and throw away the key! He should never see the light of day again!" Such seemingly continuous public response to sensational crimes fuels the "law-and-order" agenda: Build more jails, hire more police, impose mandatory sentences and abolish the Youth Criminal Justice Act. We scream these simple answers to address the decay of morality and the lenience of bleeding-heart judges.
If we look past anger, however, it's just not that simple.
Longer and harsher sentences do not lower crime rate. Texas has proven this conclusively, using just such a throw-'em-in-the-slammer method. Texas has the highest incarceration rate in the U.S. and has seen no change in its crime rate, which remains the highest of any state in the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world.
The surprising thing is that more lenient systems do not raise the crime rate. Finland has proven this conclusively. Post-war Finland methodically reduced its incarceration rate by 75% and its sentence lengths by two thirds with little effect on crime rate, except for 2006, when Finland's crime rate was its lowest ever.
Now, I'm sure there are conservative Finns who insist that throwing 'em in the slammer is better than their current "lenient" system, which saved Finland $200 million over 20 years without raising its crime rate. I'm sure it's not perfect but might we at least look at it?
Instead of a doomed get-tough response, can't our politicians stand back from the rhetorical lynch mob long enough to consider how countries such as Finland have achieved some success with their justice systems?
We scream for harsher punishments, yet Canada jails more youth than does the U.S. We decry our lenient judges, yet a murderer in Canada spends more time in jail than does a murderer in the U.S.
Politicians should not base public policy on moral outrage alone.
"Throw 'em in the slammer" is a tempting mantra but as a policy, it doesn't work.
Face to Face columnist Jim Nelson is a retired Tri-City teacher and principal who lives in Port Moody. He has contributed a number of columns on education-related issues to The Tri-City News.