Sunday, August 12, 2007

Throw The Book At 'Em Justice

I see Lorrie Goldstein has dredged up the usual old conservative saw about how the justice system is all broken.

Granted, after last weekend in Calgary, one could easily come to the conclusion that the world (or at least this corner of it) is well on its way to hell.

Recently, Ontario Conservative leader John Tory proposed a sensible bill to gather information on such issues as how long it takes to bring cases to trial, the results of plea bargaining and the number of bail violations. Why? Because in order to fix something, you need to know how and where it's breaking down.

Well, that's actually a good idea - I see nothing wrong with measuring how our justice system is working. The questions, of course, should include determining what those measurements should be.

I'll ignore the blatantly partisan rantings that Goldstein is making in his column, because they are irrelevant and largely pointless, in my view.

Justice is one thing, but at the same time, any system which does not work to help find ways "out" for those who we incarcerate creates problems, rather than solving them. While in a handful of cases (Clifford Olsen or Paul Bernardo come to mind) it is actually quite reasonable to lock the perpetrator up with little or no realistic chance of ever seeing the outside world again, we must recognize that the majority of people that we commit to prison terms will eventually be released.

The tough "hang-em high" justice in states like Texas has not been shown to be anything other than politically expedient (and certainly has not in the long term reduced crime rates). One of the biggest complaints in the justice system is recidivism, such as the Peter Whitmore case.

Whitmore is a bit of an exception here - he's a pedophile, which means that there are psychological issues involved in his criminal behaviour. But perhaps that's as good an example as any. While there is no doubt that Whitmore should be punished for his crimes (and he is being so punished), there is also a long pattern of repeat offenses. This means two things - Whitmore has some serious problems, and perhaps more worrying that what passes for treatment and follow-through monitoring has failed.

Criminals like Whitmore are perhaps an unusual subgroup of offenders - those whose criminal activities have complex and ill-understood roots. What about other criminals - gangs, murders, drug dealers and pimps? It has been proposed many times in the past that their activities have other reasons behind them. Those reasons may be anything from poverty to misplaced economic opportunism (one does have to admit that some of these people do demonstrate a surprisingly entrepreneurial bent in their activities - however vile they might be). The question in these cases is then twofold: on one hand, we need to better understand the reasons that they wound up where they did, and begin addressing those issues constructively; and second, we must find more effective ways to ensure that post release, these people become functioning members of society.

Anything less does all of us a disservice.

(* No, I'm not so naive as to believe that we can "eliminate" crime - I just don't think that locking people up is necessarily a good solution if we don't mitigate the reasons the crimes happened in the first place)

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