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January 4, 2007 - Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)

Column: Adding Time Doesn't Stop Crime

By Dan Gardner (Note: Dan Gardner was honored in 2001 with The Edward M. Brecher Award presented by the Drug Policy Alliance. The award honors those in the media that dare to steer around official drug war propaganda. Read other columns by Mr. Gardner at

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The great American crime drop is over. So why are conservative commentators still pointing to U.S.-style incarceration as the cure for the common criminal?

Ask conservatives about crime and how to fight it, and a familiar story will come out.

In the 1990s, conservatives say, state and federal governments in the United States got tough on crime. They sent criminals to prison. They kept them there longer. And crime plummeted. So if we are serious about fighting crime, we need longer sentences that will remove the worst of the worst and make the rest think twice.

"Increased imprisonment really is the best single means of reducing crime," the National Post claimed last week in an editorial that urged the Harper government to really crack down on criminals. Thanks to American experience, everyone knows that's true except "a handful of turtlenecked criminologists still hopelessly bogged down in the 1960s."

It's curious that the Post's editorialist chose to accuse doubtful criminologists of being stuck in the past because it is conservatives who continue to drum out the more-prisoners-less-crime refrain who are clearly not keeping up with the news.

The great American crime drop essentially ended around 2000. In the following years, crime bobbled up or down slightly without any major change. But in the past two years, things have taken a decided turn for the worse: Crime, particularly violent crime, is rising significantly across most of the U.S. In some cities, murder rates have risen so rapidly they have all but erased the declines of the 1990s. For the first time in years, crime is once again a serious concern among mayors, police chiefs and much of the American public.

What's behind the shift? Nobody's really sure. But one thing that is certain is that it is not happening because American politicians went soft on crime. From 2000 to the present, the U.S. incarceration rate steadily rose -- from one spectacular record high to another.

Texas has more prisoners in state and county lockups alone than the combined prison populations of Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland. In California, the prison system is at double its maximum capacity and the governor has declared the situation to be a state of emergency that he intends to relieve by spending many billions more building new prisons. And still crime is rising.

Of course, conservatives can respond that we shouldn't make too much of the fact that rising prison populations now coincide with rising crime. That's nothing more than a simplistic correlation, they may say. Many other factors are in play. Those factors may have changed and are now obscuring the crime-fighting benefit that comes from rising prison populations.

And they would be right: It would be simplistic of me to say the coincidence of rising crime and rising prison populations proves incarceration doesn't reduce crime, or to go even further and say rising prison populations cause rising crime. But the whole conservative argument is based on nothing more than exactly this same sort of simplistic correlation: Prison populations went up; crime went down; therefore prison works.

So how about we make an agreement? Let's all stop using cheap, meaningless correlations to score political points. If conservatives will stop saying they're right because crime dropped after Rudy Giuliani became mayor of New York City, liberals will stop saying they're right because crime dropped in Canada after conditional sentences and all the other "soft on crime" measures conservatives hate so much were passed.

Actually, I only wish liberals would say that. Most liberals have swallowed the conservative cant on justice whole. Even Jack Layton -- Jack Layton! -- has said mandatory minimum sentences are an effective way to reduce crime. But the fact remains: Throughout the 1990s, while the U.S. was busy passing Russia as the world's top jailer, Canada introduced a series of policies explicitly intended to reduce the use of incarceration to a bare minimum. Canada's incarceration rate declined. And crime dropped.

Yes, it dropped. Unlike the crime drop in the U.S., and particularly the drop in New York, the crime drop in Canada got little media attention. But it happened. In fact, it was eerily similar to the American crime drop: It started precisely when the U.S. decline started and ended when the American decline ended. It wasn't quite as big as the U.S. drop -- it was about 70 per cent of the relative magnitude -- but then Canadian crime hadn't risen as steeply as American crime in the years before the drop.

Today, Canada's incarceration rate is less than one-sixth the American rate. As a result, we have saved tens of billions of dollars and made a lasting contribution to a more humane society -- without sacrificing public safety.

I know many people -- not only conservatives -- will find all this hard to swallow. For them, I would suggest reading a new book called The Great American Crime Decline (Oxford University Press). Author Franklin Zimring is one of those "turtlenecked criminologists" at the University of California, Berkeley, but no fair reader would dismiss the book as the product of wooly theorizing.

In fact, Zimring is a numbers man who methodically gathers and analyses data, and then uses it like a wrecking ball to demolish all the popular assumptions and explanations about crime in the U.S. More prisoners, less crime? Smash. Rudy Giuliani and the "Broken Windows" doctrine? Crash. There's even a chapter demolishing the abortion-did-it theory popularized by the best-selling book Freakonomics.

For Canadians, The Great American Crime Decline isn't only a necessary corrective for the false conclusions conservatives are importing from the U.S. Zimring also makes extensive use of Canadian experience and the chapter comparing the Canadian crime drop in the 1990s with that of the U.S. is probably the best summary of the evidence available.

The Post's editorialists might want to have a look. MPs should also read it before the next delusional, destructive, costly crime bill comes up for a vote.

Of course I'd also love it if Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Justice Minister Vic Toews read the book, but I suspect it's more likely that Art Hanger will announce he's come out of the closet than that the prime minister and justice minister will give serious consideration to evidence that contradicts conservative ideology.

Citizen columnist Dan Gardner is on book leave.

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