Sunday, April 16, 2023

On Crime Waves and Policy

Much ink (most of it virtual) is being spilled these days about how “dangerous” our cities have become. Shootings, assaults and so on seem to take place on our transit systems on a nearly daily basis. I’m not here to say that there is no problem - there clearly is - but it is not what we are being told it is. 

Conservative politicians (especially) are spending an enormous amount of time pronouncing upon how they will fix these problems.  “More Enforcement!”, they cry out from their lecterns; “Ban opioids!” , “Sue the drug makers”, “Go after criminals who use guns!” and so on it goes. They complain loudly about how “woke” mayors have created this problem.

The conservative calculus seems to be (very roughly), that the current wave of crime stems from drug addicts and homeless people becoming violent in their efforts to survive.  Yet, they view both addiction and homelessness as moral failings, rather than the consequences of complex systemic problems in society. After all, someone who is homeless can solve that problem if they just get a job; the addict can solve their addiction if they just pursue treatment, right? 

So, their approach becomes one of punitive measures.  More policing, tougher laws, dismantling “harm reduction” programs because they think that those programs are “facilitating” the problem (likewise they argue the same about “safe supply” strategies).  

However, they never look at the role that their own policies have played in creating the current situation. For example, in 2019, the first UCP budget grabbed millions from policing budgets and diverted it into provincial coffers. In effect, this was a literal “defunding” of the police in both Edmonton and Calgary. However, unlike what “Defund Police” advocates want to do (redirect funding into a range of social programs), the UCP just took the money and rolled it into general revenues to balance the budget.

I would like to point out that policing is fundamentally reactive.  Police respond to crimes after they have happened. This is at the crux of the “Defund Police” advocacy - the question being asked is “why pour more money into reactive approaches, when a proactive model might well reduce the conditions that lead to criminal activity?”.  It’s a valid question, and one that we should be asking ourselves. 

Then the UCP turned around and proceeded to dismantle harm reduction strategies like Safe Consumption Sites (SCSes). “Oh, you’re just facilitating addiction” is very much the argument they make. Except that isn’t the purpose of these facilities. The point of any harm reduction strategy is to make it more likely that an addict survives long enough to be ready for active treatment. The “war on drugs” model that started in the 1960s, and really took hold in the 1980s failed because it emphasized treatment at the expense of everything else. It relied on stigmatizing the use of drugs, and ignored the reality that once someone is addicted, stigma just drives them underground. 

SCSes serve multiple purposes, including being a gateway for referrals into treatment, and often they ended up facilitating access to other social supports that helped get people into more stable conditions than the street. So, while the UCP has created a whole bunch of active treatment spaces, the dismantling of SCSes has actually reduced the number of addicts seeking treatment compared to the situation when the NDP was in power. 

Now we hit the third part of the problem. Under the UCP, Alberta Works (aka Welfare) was modified so that you could only access benefits if you had a mailing address.  If you suddenly found yourself homeless for any reason, *poof* there go your income benefits. I wish I was kidding.  So not only does this create a precondition for access, it guarantees that anyone who becomes homeless will suddenly have what little income they were receiving (and other benefits) revoked. Talk about increasing the problems!

More locally, policies such as locking up shelters at transit stations, or installing benches that can’t be slept on, actually amplify these problems. As people get pushed away from needed supports, they seek out what safety and shelter they can find - and that often ends up being bus shelters, semi-derelict buildings, and so on. Of course, civic politicians get an earful about this because quite frankly, it’s really uncomfortable to see someone who is in dire straits on your morning commute to the office. They often react by taking “steps” that push those already down on their luck even further.

When it comes to drug supply, any rational person would be looking and saying “why would you sell a product that kills your customer?”.  That’s true, but let’s recognize that even on the hierarchy of life on the streets, that gets just a bit worse - the reality is that just as conservative politicians have made addicts into outcasts, the drug makers and dealers tend to view their customers as disposable as well. If you die from one of their concoctions, well - you were just another junkie to them anyhow. 

Here’s one area where I think the conservative “get tough” approach is appropriate. Those who make and sell these concoctions, who choose to conduct a business that kills its own customers deserve hard punishment. Likewise, those who smuggle, sell, or create illegal weapons deserve to face much harsher penalties than they do today. These are the people whose actions facilitate criminality.

All this is to say that while conservatives are long on “solutions” that involve punishing people harshly, they’re more than a little bit short on insight into the causes of these problems, and how their own policies create the preconditions for more crime. Any real solution to these problems is multifaceted. Yes, there needs to be appropriate levels of enforcement, but that needs to be directed at the people whose “business activities” are oriented to creating the conditions we see today. Then we need a broad set of policies and public services that are able to reach those that have been discarded by society. The problems are systemic, and they start with taking the attitude that people who are down on their luck or circumstances are somehow the problem themselves. 

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