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 BANNERLINE on Crime & Corrections

NOTE: The following commentary was the theme of a February, 2002, address by Gary Bannerman to a symposium convened by the Vancouver Board of Trade. By way of background, an interest in crime and penology evolved from the earliest days of Bannerman's journalism career. He was among the first reporters ever permitted to report from behind the walls of a Canadian federal maximum security prison in 1968 (Dorchester, N.B.) Stories in newspapers, magazines, radio and television followed for 25 years, frequently high-profile investigative reports and exposes, landmark live broadcasts from behind the walls of prisons and interviews with every element of corrections: police from constables to the Commissioners of London's Metropolitan Police and the Royal Hong Kong Police Department; two heads of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency; customs investigators, Supreme Court justices, lawyers, social workers, prison guards and criminals. Three times he was called to negotiate hostage incidents, one of which spanned three days, ended in tragedy and was reported in every major newspaper of the world.

While determined efforts to expose the mindlessness of draconian punishment and to evolve more attention to penal reform and the root cause of crime frequently drew angry accusations of being a "bleeding heart," Bannerman also received prestigious honours from police agencies and the Canadian Penitentiary Service. The consistent message was to apprehend offenders and to remove the danger to society.

 Commentary by Gary Bannerman

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 would collapse.

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 for long.

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 crime.

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 lesson".

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 graduates.

GB 3-31-2002

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