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Locking Up The Poor

By Christian Harvey

This is the first in a dialogue by all the members of the Youth Initiatives Team on the Omnibus Crime Bill that was recently passed in the House of Commons.  We would love for you to join the conversation, so please let us know what you think.

I know most of us don’t have a lot of time for politics.  We vote once every four years, if we are available that day, and just generally accept that stuff is messed up.  But something is happening right now that is huge, and I really think that we can’t be quiet.  It is the new ‘Tough on Crime’ bill that was recently passed in the House of Commons.  This bill concerns me in a bucket load of ways:

  1. We are getting ‘tough on crime’ as crime is on the decline.  Only one study, a study that has been discredited by scholars from across the country, and a study that just happened to be done by a former advisor to Mr. Harper, has said that crime is on the rise. All the rest have stated that crime for the most part is in decline.  Why spend billions building jails to get ‘tough on crime’ now?
  2. If the goal is to reduce crime, throwing more people in jail for longer is not the way to do it.  Have we learned nothing from the US?  Even the state of Texas, home of cowboys and guns, is saying we are going the wrong way.  Conservative Republican  Representative Jerry Madden says “It’s a very expensive thing to build new prisons and, if you build’em, I guarantee you they will come.  They’ll be filled, OK?  Because people will send them there.  But, if you don’t build’em, they will come up with very creative things to do that keep the community safe and yet still do the incarceration necessary.”  We need to invest in prevention, not incarceration.
  3. Jail does not make people better.  As a Christian, I believe our call is not to punish people, but rather to work toward the redemption of a person.  I have worked with many people who have been in prison, and they don’t come out rehabilitated.  We need to be looking at some of the cutting edge programs such as Restorative Justice Victim Offender Reconciliation Programs.  These actually change people for the better, and also give the victim a chance to truly tell the offender what they have taken from them.
  4. This bill, whether intentionally or not, will target the most vulnerable in our communities.  The poor, mentally ill and Aboriginal populations are already the primary residents of our jails, this will only increase.  In most cases, violence is a response, whether we are aware of it or not, to a systematic violence such as poverty, racism, etc.  The frustration and hopelessness that the victims of these systems of oppression suffer from often lead to acts of violence such as addiction, assault, robbery, and so on.  This does not mean that someone should not take personal responsibility, but if we want to get to the root of crime, we need to address the root causes.  We need to acknowledge that the gap between rich and poor in this country is growing. We need to acknowledge that more and more people are falling through the cracks and are in hopeless situations.  We need to acknowledge that our country has a deep rooted racism towards our Aboriginal peoples.  We need to acknowledge that many of our mentally ill are left to fend for themselves.  And when we have finally acknowledged these things, we need to take our money that we are going to use to lock up our Aboriginal, poor and mentally ill neighbors and put it towards breaking these cycles of systematic violence, toward ending poverty, justice for our Aboriginal peoples, and support for those suffering from mental illness.

Let us not be fooled to thinking that vengeance is the same as justice, that punishment acts as a deterrent, and that crimes are just committed by ‘bad’ people who need to be put away.  Let us look for a justice system that looks to restore the victim and the offender, that addresses violence at both the personal and systematic level.  Let us work for true justice.

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