Punishment doesn’t fix crime — or make us safe

Is the earth flat?

Is the earth flat?

There has certainly been plenty of crime and punishment talk in Canada recently. New laws put more people in prison longer, make it harder for them to get out, and make it more difficult for them to reintegrate into communities when they do. Public debate is split between those who believe they’re getting more public safety from more prison sentences and those who know this is like saying the earth is flat.

Mounting evidence cannot be ignored forever. The Smart Justice Network (SJN) has been formed by people from across the country who know from experience what reliable research shows conclusively: imprisoning more people is not the right way to achieve safety from most crime in Canada. It doesn’t help most victims. It’s damaging for most of the people we put in prison, as well as their families—especially the children. It makes things worse in many communities.  It is not a smart way to invest money.

Punishing crime with prison is a deeply ingrained reflex in our culture.  But in these deficit times, when we learn that punishing crime more is reducing crime less, and we hear about approaches now favoured in some countries that are showing better outcomes than ours, it begs the question: what really works?

The jury is already in on some major findings:

  • Education, employability programs, restorative justice opportunities, treatment for addiction, anger management and interpersonal problem-solving are what cause prisoners to reoffend less (Losel) — but they are even more effective without prison (Andrews, Gendreau, Matrix).
  • Stable work, good relationships, connecting with a community, being included: these are the conditions proven to best stop a life of crime (Maruna).
  • Going to prison can actually increase the likelihood of reoffending (Gendreau).
  • So do longer sentences and strictly punitive practices (Losel).

How many people know that Canada’s new laws increase the very factors linked to higher re-offending? More spending for less safety.

The Smart Justice Network proposes to make reliable information about this more accessible and encourage people to talk, meet and write about this in their own communities.  Now is the time for Canada to take a step back to consider the results of our massive investments in courts and prisons.  What is wrong? What works? What can we do?

This website seeks to promote serious reflection on these questions, putting a human face on the statistics and hearing the stories behind the headlines.  You will find here approaches that help more victims recover, that can inspire accused or convicted people to take responsibility and change direction, and that will help people feel less afraid.

Re-investment of justice resources can make a difference.  We face big challenges with our new laws: in time there will be appeals and proposed amendments.  It will be very important for political leaders to have heard all the voices that support new directions.

We invite you to discover Smart Justice and help make this happen.

— Lorraine Berzins