It’s generally accepted that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a pretty smart guy. So why is his government’s plan to reduce gun crimes so misguided?

All the experts say the legislation to impose stiffer sentences for gun crimes will not have the desired effect of reducing crime and removing criminals from our midst. In fact, the Toronto Star reported the government’s own justice minister, Vic Toews recently issued a memo stating a number “of studies have shown mandatory minimum sentences for firearm offences have not resulted in a decrease in crime rates.”

This observation is further corroborated by various independent studies — for example, the study conducted by Professor Anthony Doob, of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Criminology. Professor Doob’s study found harsher sentences did not reduce crime. “It’s not the penalty that causes people to pause before they commit a crime; it’s the likelihood of being apprehended.”

In addition, numerous other reports indicate that harsher sentencing also will not reduce the likelihood of recidivism: the tendency to recommit crime. The report Effects of Prison Sentences on Recidivism released by the Office of the Solicitor General Canada which summarized 50 studies and involved over 300,000 offenders notes, “Longer prison sentences were not associated with reduced recidivism,” in fact, longer sentences resulted in “a three per cent increase in recidivism.”

The PM’s decision to push through legislation the experts agree will not achieve its desired goal of reducing gun crime and making our communities safer may seem puzzling, but it isn’t really. Prime Minister Harper is simply doing what many politicians do: playing politics, instead of doing what the people of Canada elected him to do: govern.

In times like these when it seems our government has forgotten how to govern, it’s up to citizens to become proactive and pick-up the slack. Luckily, there are Canadians doing just that.

Employed as a parole officer, Janice, a divorced mother of three has opened her home to ex-prisoners for the last six years. “I opened my doors to fostering ex-prisoners because of what I saw happening in the prison system.” Janice’s position as a parole officer gave her first-hand insight into what happens to parolees once released from correctional facilities. “Ex-prisoners normally go to group homes, and that’s the worst.”

Janice is part of a unique program run by the Ontario Probation and Parole Board called Alternative Custody. This particular program, part of the wider strategy of Restorative Justice, allows ex-prisoners to enter private homes instead of going into group homes.

“The majority of ex-prisoners in a group home setting will recommit a crime within one year of their release. I saw the prison system as a revolving door. ”

Janice’s experience is supported by the report Recidivism Among Convicted Youth and Young Adults released by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (CCJS). The report found:

  • Sixty per cent of convicted offenders were in jail because of recidivism;
  • Younger offenders are more frequent recidivists with 16-years-old being the most common age of first conviction; and
  • Early age of onset recidivists had higher incarceration rates.

Essentially, the criminal justice system is fostering an environment that perpetuated the type of activity it should be preventing. The new tougher gun crime legislation, may look good and may sound good, but will only slow down not fix the revolving door.

Restorative Justice works on a different principle than harsher sentencing. At its core, Restorative Justice is beneficial to victims, offenders and public safety by providing opportunities through programs like Alternative Custody, for offenders to successfully reintegrate into the wider community.

The Restorative Justice approach to crime is also supported by empirical evidence. The CCJS study notes, “Restorative Justice programs, on average, yielded reductions in recidivism compared to non-restorative approaches to criminal behaviour.” In addition, the Office of the Solicitor General of Canada’s report further supports Restorative Justice programs as being “more effective in reducing criminal behaviour than increasing the punishment for criminal acts.”

“One of the boys that came into my home was 15-years-old when he arrived. He’s now 21-years-old and has recently gone on to independent living.” Mike, the young man Janice speaks of was only 13-years-old when he found himself living on the street. Before long, Mike was picked up by police and placed in a group home, “That’s when the problems started,” states Janice. Involved in a life of crime, Mike was eventually convicted of theft and sentenced to two years in juvenile detention.

The chaos preceding Mike’s incarceration and the prison system itself did very little to provide him with the life skills he would need to pull himself out of a life of crime. “When Mike entered my home, he could not read or write above a very basic level.”

Unfortunately, Mike’s situation is not uncommon. A study by Charles Ungerleider from the University of British Columbia on Canadian elementary and secondary education found, “non-graduates areâe¦75 per cent of the federal prison population and 73 per cent of the population in provincial jails.”

“In the prison system, the number of offenders with minimal education is alarming,” states Janice.

Legislating harsher sentences and building more prisons to house more young men who commit and then recommit gun crimes will not make our communities safer, will not reduce the number of gun offences, and will not help these young men reintegrate into society. Study after study confirms this. So why isn’t our government listening? Worse, why is our government doing exactly what the experts and the research clearly show will not work?

There is no easy fix to the problem of gun violence. But we are at a pivotal point in the pathology of this issue. It is a complex issue that will require a complex solution. The solution, however, will never be found if our government continues to ignore the experts and the research in order to play politics.

Tricia Hylton

Tricia Hylton is a freelance writer living in Toronto, Ontario. Through her writing, Tricia hopes to provide insights to create conversation and understanding on the impact of Canada’s social, economic...