Let’s assume, just for a moment, that all Canadians agree that the number one desired effect of the criminal justice system is to keep crime from happening in the first place, or from repeating once it has happened. Simply put, we all agree to hold prevention as the primary goal.

This is a much more challenging road to travel than punishing crime. By going this route, we can no longer dismiss crime as being only an individual failing. As with all other prevention efforts we would need to acknowledge that there are social factors that impact individual behaviours. Or as George Albee put it in 1990: “No mass disease or disorder afflicting humankind has ever been eliminated by attempts at treating individuals … prevention is an approach to reducing the future incidence of a condition through proactive efforts aimed at groups, or even a whole society.” (Albee, G.W. (1990) The futility of psychotherapy. Journal of Mind and Behavior, 11(3/4), 369-384.)

In other words, if we want individuals to make just and positive choices we must work to change the conditions in which the choices are being made. If it was the tangled mix of social and community circumstances that make crime more likely, then we need to untangle these circumstances, look at what lies beneath and work to change that. This means we all have a role to play in reducing poverty, addiction, mental illness, isolation, trauma and other root causes that have been shown in research and community experience over and over again to increase the risks of victimization and decrease community safety. Now that would be smart. And in the end it would be effective.

By taking this approach to preventing crime, we can eliminate the need to count on the justice system for this.  It is a system that has been handed the task of punishment, deterrence, denunciation, retribution AND prevention. These are conflicting goals. Experience and evidence have shown that they cannot be accomplished in combination and have mired us in the never-ending tug-of-war of “tough versus soft”.  What achieves some level of emotional satisfaction in seeking the former is unlikely to achieve the goal of rehabilitation and may indeed be counterproductive for the goal of prevention.

By taking the approach which invests in preventing crime through social development, we would no longer be caught in these seesaw conversations about what is tough and what is soft. Smart justice moves us away from striving for a reaction to crime that is seen as the main tool to keep us safe in the first place. Smart justice looks at what lies beneath, teases out what can be done to change it and exposes some central contradictions inherent in a system that for too long has been expected to accomplish too much with too limited a scope of methods. But of course, when crime happens, it is smart to respond to it with interventions that can help prevent it further.  As one former police chief observed, “Up to 80 percent of incidents requiring police intervention are better classified as social or mental health issues rather than criminal ones.” They can be rerouted immediately to these other resources, or dealt with in the criminal justice system in close collaboration with them.

Smart Justice can help us to responsibly allocate shrinking resources to those methods that can accomplish the most with the least.

Smart, effective and efficient are in many disciplines by now synonymous with prevention.

Justice should be no exception.

 –Christiane Sadeler