We get the crime we deserve.
Consider the "War on Drugs." Has there been a
more unsuccessful war in recorded human history? Canada outlawed opiates and
other addictive chemicals in 1908. The United States followed in 1914. A
curious problem had arisen, more of a social sideshow than a serious
concern. Some people were drinking cough medicine like we consume soft
drinks today. Canada and the United States determined to stamp out the
problem. (The United Kingdom and most other enlightened countries focused on
treating the addicts, and common sense rules about the contents of
medicines, a health issue, not a police matter).
And thus the greatest criminal enterprise on earth was
born. A police concern of the early part of the century eventually escalated
into today's War on Drugs. Failure after failure after failure and still the
governments do the same dumb things. If $500 million and one army of police
fail this year, let's try $1 billion and two armies next year. If a 10 year
jail sentence fails, let's try 20.
Florida couldn't afford the elimination of illicit drugs.
Police, criminals and the proceeds of crime is - by far - the state's
biggest industry. The tougher the laws become, the higher the profits from
drugs. More money means more, smarter, richer and meaner criminals.
The nation most responsible for the world's illicit drug
problem is not Columbia or Turkey or Afghanistan or even the Golden Triangle
of Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia and northern Thailand. The principal
villain is the United States. The source of the money is the source of the
problem. If the U.S. market dried up, most of the underworld drug trade
Britain registers drug addicts and gives them their fix.
There is no glamour. The UK has an illicit drug trade, principally among the
young and affluent professionals (cocaine), rock music circles and other
sectors (acid), but comparison of their statistics to North America
indicates a staggering difference. Each Scandinavian and European nation has
its own approach and they have their own problems - no one is happy - but
they all are closer to the UK model than they are North America. The
statistical comparison to this society is so stark, the incompetence of our
laws and our leadership is indisputable.
Billions of dollars worth of shoplifting, burglary and
property crime is perpetrated each year in North America by desperate drug
addicts. No one can even guess how high the actual number might be. Any
American or Canadian city of 1 million or more people likely has more drug
addicts than the entire United Kingdom, a nation of 60 million. Divide the
rest of the crime by 60 as well. And the number of police, lawyers and
prison guards associated with the problem.
The War on Drugs is official dementia - the myth that
attacking the supply will solve the problem. The solution can only be
achieved by eliminating the market. Give the incurables whatever they want
and work hard to save those who want to and can be helped.
I'll skip the capital punishment and gun lunacy in this
missive, except to point out that the murder rate is rising fastest in the
U.S. states which are executing the most offenders. Killing gets etched into
the culture, permissible under certain circumstances.
But, I digress.
Sociologists with minds so open the wind whistles through
them, attempt to prove that crime cuts across all social, racial and ethnic
strata. Arguably, if white collar and otherwise affluent criminals ever got
close to their just penal rewards, the sociologists' fantasy would gain some
credibility. But the rich and the non-violent fraud artists (irrespective of
the broken lives, alcoholism, divorces and suicides left in their wake) tend
not to go to jail, and, when they do, its with minimal discomfort and not
The truth is stunningly different. Read the biographies of
any major jail population and you will come to the inescapable conclusion
that there are few "criminals" who are not also victims. A game I
ask people to play is to consider any population of any prison: remove from
the total all the drug addicts, alcoholics, native Indians, abused women,
people who were victims of physical or sexual abuse as children,
illiterates, and those who are psychotic or otherwise mentally ill. Most can
claim credit to more than one of the preceding attributes. Look at whomever
is left. Deduct those who did a one-time stupid thing, from embezzlement or
growing marijuana on the patio, to a drunk driving tragedy. Subtract the
one-time murderer who suddenly went nuts one night for whatever reason.
Take a hard look at how many of the total population have
been in group homes, foster homes, jails and institutions since they were
children (most). A high percentage emerged from hell on earth.
A Canadian judge achieved landmark research a generation
ago by giving every juvenile delinquent who came before him an informal
reading and intelligence test. His early findings led to university research
that ultimately determined that the majority of juvenile criminals had a
diagnosable learning disability. All school taught them was that they were
failures. They sought power and ego gratification through mischief and
Our society seems to have the daft idea that if we keep
putting people into ever more miserable cages and keep them there for
increasing lengths of time, that someday they will "learn their
In fact, we tend to put a minor problem in jail and make
damned sure that two years later we release a major problem.
Those who argue for tougher sentences and who are quickest
to cut funds for social programs, either in the community or in terms of
attempts to reroute offenders, seem not to understand the time bomb with
which they are playing. All but a handful of those convicted will one day be
back on the street. We take satisfaction from putting an armed robber away
for five years. We hope that he is punished.
Five years later? What have we got?
So much for the fallacy of the right wing.
The fallacy of the left is the word
"rehabilitation." It's a misnomer, for few of those who are a
menace to today's society had ever been properly "habilitated."
The five-time or 10-time loser who has been in and out of jails since
childhood, is an individual beyond hope.
Why would anyone hire an ex-con? The candidate has likely
had a series of offenses, probably violence at some stage, limited (if any)
education and practically no useful work experience. They can't get bonded.
Chances are that their social skills are appalling. If there is a home at
all, it is most probably a festering problem in itself.
Why do our parole and probation services naively put
forward the model of the rehabilitated criminal, who will suddenly lead a
meaningful life performing useful work in society. It is illegal for any of
them to make a false declaration. If asked, they have to report their
criminal record. They are told not to associate with known criminals or
undesirable people. Usually, they don't know any other kind of people. Who
else will accept them?
Our best hope is to prevent as much crime as possible, and
to manage the consequences. Public protection is the highest priority. Keep
the dangerous people off the streets, wherever possible, using due process
of law. And monitor those who are doubtful or suspicious. No jail is a
luxury resort, but efforts must be made to reduce the culture of making
people worse for the experience - and more dangerous.
Beyond that, the greatest challenge has to be at the grass
roots of any society. Identify the children and families at risk and make
the appropriate investment. Today's 25 year-old repeat offender, costing
society $50,000 a year to house, and a lifetime cost of staggering
dimensions in crime, police work and the justice system, was most likely an
impoverished child of the 1980s, largely ignored by society, and politicians
who are just as quick to cancel school lunch programs as they are to promote
crackdowns on crime.
A New York urban philosopher, Dr. George Kelling, is
renowned for the phrase "Fixing Broken Windows." He advises cities
that neglected buildings and neighbourhoods, with burnt out street lamps, an
abundance of litter, vacant lots, and broken windows, advertise that nobody
cares. These sectors become havens for crime and slovenly public behaviour.
He suggests that if these areas are cleaned up, windows replaced,
landscaping improved and more generally cared for, the human factor will
improve as well. Crime rates fall. More respect is shown.
Kelling's theory could be applied to the entire crime
problem. Catch it at the source. Poverty, neglect, hopelessness and the
unevenness of public services guarantees a population of destructive