Prison. Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Criminologist Irvin Waller recommends that governments should rely on what he calls “upstream social preventive programs” to deal with crime, rather than the tools of the traditional criminal justice system. That is another way of saying that, to curtail crime, especially violent crime, prevention is more effective than punishment.

Programs aimed at preventing crimes before they happen cost less than incarceration. And there is a massive body of evidence that they engender a significant reduction in the rate of crime.

During the Harper era in Canada, the emphasis was entirely on the wrong approach, on toughening the penal system. The Conservatives made prisons harsher and less focused on rehabilitation — they cut the prison farms program, for instance — and mandated a series of gratuitous minimum sentences, limiting the discretion of judges to treat each case on its own merits.

The Trudeau Liberals have taken a different tack. They restored the prison farm program. But we in Canada still have a long way to go if we are to achieve what Waller recommends in his new book Science and Secrets of Ending Violent Crime.

Waller makes a case that by now seems almost self-evident, based on nothing more than common sense. The internationally respected criminologist, who has advised many governments and the United Nations, does not limit himself to common sense, however. He uses data and scientific evidence rigorously.

In his new book, Waller bemoans the fact that, with the exception of England and Wales, “governments around the world have found more and more money to spend on their reactive criminal justice systems.”

And, he adds, “We have seen much of that funding has had little or no effect on ending violent crime.”

Billions on cops and jails to no effect

Waller cites data to show how huge increases in spending on policing and incarceration have not had the desired effect, and, at times, have had quite the opposite effect.

In 1980, the United States was spending close to $20 billion on policing and just under $10 billion on the prison system and criminal courts. Twenty years later those numbers had reached $75 billion for policing, $55 billion for corrections and $30 billion for courts. Those increases for futile, coercive and punitive measures were three times the increases in spending on elementary and secondary education.

In addition, it is well established fact that, as Waller puts it, in the U.S. “penal policies fall heavily on the poor, Blacks, and Hispanics.”

Most of the millions of incarcerated Americans are men, but, in many ways, it is their families who pay the heaviest price. They “have problems with keeping their housing, and behavioural problems run rampant among the children, who, at 2.1 million, number as many as the inmates.”

“Rich and powerful people,” Waller writes, “are not likely to be arrested for crimes. But poor people of colour, living in disadvantaged circumstances, oh, how they can be affected by standard police actions! Consider the close to 1,000 people who are killed by police in the U.S., each year.”

Canada and Mexico have similar records to the U.S.

Mexico’s spending on police and the army rose 61 per cent between 2005 and 2015. During that same period, Waller reports, “homicide records have spiked.”

In Canada, the total cost of policing increased from $6 billion in 2000 to $14.7 billion in 2017. Most of that money has come from the budgets of cash-strapped municipalities, and it has forced municipal governments to cut other services, often social services that are necessary to prevent crime “upstream.”

Waller argues that municipalities are the level of government best equipped to implement crime-prevention programs, but, in Canada, they are handicapped by the fact that they only access eight per cent of tax revenue, with most of that coming from property taxes.

The examples of Glasgow and Bogota

What kind of investments would have a salutary effect on the rate of violent crime?

Waller cites a great many, ranging from life-skills training to family therapy to home visits by public health nurses — which help prevent abuse of children (which, in turn, contributes to youth not getting involved in crime).

He cites positive examples from many countries. One of the most instructive of those is that of Glasgow, Scotland’s most populous city. That city lowered its murder rate by 50 per cent through what Waller calls “smart law enforcement” combined with “programs targeted to youth, family health and other services in problem places.”

Glasgow’s strategy has included tough and focused deterrence, using what Waller refers to as “proactive policing.” Being proactive does not mean stopping and frisking every person of colour walking down the street. It does mean “a zero-tolerance warning that, if violence does not stop, life is going to get very tough for every single gang member.”

More important for Glasgow’s success has been its social development model, which includes “early childhood education, parenting support, youth conflict resolution in schools, street outreach and interventions in hospitals to mentor people out of violence.”

Glasgow is a medium-sized city, with a population of less than one million. Bogota, Colombia is a mega-municipality, with a population comparable to that of New York. But it, too, implemented a crime-prevention model based on upstream measures rather than massive punishment, and it has achieved similar success to Glasgow.

Decades ago, the Colombian metropolis created a permanent violence prevention unit, reporting directly to the mayor. That unit has succeeded in reducing the violent crime rate from 80 per 100,000 in 1993 to 23 per 100,000 10 years later, and that rate, Waller says, is still going down.

Among the measures Bogota has taken, based on data and evidence, are stringent control of handguns and limiting access to alcohol “during high violence evenings.”

Irvin Waller’s Science and Secrets of Ending Violent Crime is rich in many other concrete and tangible examples. The author’s hope is that policy makers will seriously examine and take heed of its many science-supported recommendations.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...