It’s been a busy year for the crime-busters at Queen’s Park, the Ontariolegislature. In May 2001 alone, the province announced plans to test welfarerecipients for drugs, partially privatize the prison system and make iteasier for police to seize criminal assets. These proposals are designed tocomplement earlier initiatives such as “boot camps” for young offenders.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because these measures have already beentried in the United States, with decidedly mixed, and even disastrous,results. In fact, American politicians are rapidly abandoning the veryproposals the Tories are so eager now to introduce in Ontario.
Take civil forfeiture. This law-enforcement technique is used to bankruptcriminals by taking away their profits and property. Canada already has asystem in which felons can be stripped of their ill-gotten gains following aconviction in court. The Conservatives, however, think police should be ableto make seizures even before they secure a conviction. They recentlyintroduced provincial legislation that would allow officers to apply for a cut of any booty they confiscate. American cops were granted similar powers back in the mid-1980s to combat illegal drugs. The result was endemic corruption and wholesale looting from innocent people.
In 1991, for example, fully eight out of ten Americans who had assets seizedby police for alleged drug offences were never charged with a crime. Notthat it mattered. Anyone who wanted to get their money or property back hadto prove their assets were “untainted” – a total reversal of standard courtprocedure, which assumes innocence until guilt is proven. By themid-1990s, the U.S. Justice Department was raking in nearly half-a-billiondollars a year in forfeited loot, much of it from people with no connectionto the drug-trade. Forfeiture-abuse got so out-of-hand that the U.S.Congress had to pass a reform bill in the late 1990s to curb some of thesystem’s worst excesses. Last year, voters in Utah and Oregon approvedreferendums that scaled back state-wide forfeiture laws.
So-called “boot camps” for young offenders are also falling out of favoursouth of the border. Such facilities – attempts to straighten out delinquentsby putting them in a military-style environment – were first introduced inLouisiana in 1985. At present, there are roughly fifty publicly funded bootcamps for young offenders in the U.S., with 4,500 beds.
In 1997, the Tories opened Ontario’s first boot camp at a location nearBarrie. Dubbed “Project Turnaround,” this “strict-discipline facility” isintended to reduce recidivism (the rate at which criminals commit newoffences) among sixteen- and seventeen-year-old male miscreants. Aprovincial report released in March claimed that recidivism stood atthirty-three percent for Project Turnaround grads, compared to fifty percentfor kids at other custodial facilities.
It’s questionable, however, whether future results will be as positive.American studies indicate that boot camps have little long-term effect. A1998 report by the Koch Crime Institute in Kansas found that recidivism forU.S. juveniles in “traditional correctional facilities” ranged betweensixty-three and seventy-one percent, while the rate for offenders in bootcamps stood at sixty-four to seventy-five percent. The failure of boot campsto reduce crime, combined with incidents of violence at certain facilities,have led authorities to close or scale back boot-camp operations in Georgia,Maryland, Colorado, North Dakota, Florida and Arizona.
Other Tory proposals have equally unpromising American antecedents. In thename of efficiency, the Conservatives want to close old prisons and herdconvicts into massive “maxi” jails, including a new 1,200-bed facility inPenetanguishene. The latter is to be run by private operators. However, ifthe American example is anything to go by, privately run maxi-prisons canactually increase crime.
In the late 1990s, for example, a 1,700-inmate private prison in Youngston,Ohio recorded thirteen stabbings – two fatal – in a little over a year. Thistotal was higher than the combined number of assaults with deadly weaponsamong the other 50,000 convicts in Ohio’s prison system.
Testing welfare recipients for drugs to ensure that public money isn’t funding illegal habits is another curious Conservative policy. While the United States has stiff laws against illegal drugs, people on social assistance are rarely tested for using them – and for good reason. In 1999, when some Michigan counties introduced drug-tests for welfare recipients, this first-in-the-nation program was immediately challenged in court by theAmerican Civil Liberties Union. A federal judge declared the program to be a gross violation of privacy and quickly shut it down. Such an outcome is almost inevitable in Ontario, a province where human-rights boards have already tossed out workplace drug-testing regulations.
What makes the Tory obsession with failed U.S. law enforcement tacticsespecially mystifying is that Ontario doesn’t suffer from the kind of crimethat plagues the United States. Between 1992 and 1996, there were roughly3,000 gun murders in Chicago, Illinois. The figure for Toronto – a city ofthe same size – stood at 100 for the same period. Violent crime in generaldecreased nation-wide throughout the 1990s.
You would think this would please the Tories. This is the same party, afterall, that stated in its 1999 campaign book: “Everyone in Ontario has theright to be safe from crime. We should be able to walk in our neighbourhoods, use public transit, live in our homes and send our children to school free from the fear of criminals.”
An admirable goal, and one that’s already a reality across most of theprovince, no thanks to the Conservatives and bad crime-fighting ideas fromthe United States.
Nate Hendley is a freelance journalist who lives in Toronto. He haswritten extensively for This Magazine, the National Postand eye weekly, among other publications.