Don’t let scare stories about crime divert

Populism of Fear
When you’ve stripped all you can from the halt, the lame, and the blind, when you’ve wrecked the Ministry of the Environment, turned the mentally ill into the streets, pushed people into poverty, undermined hospital emergency rooms, been associated with the sorry string of events that led to the death of six people from contaminated municipal water at Walkerton, and you have downloaded everything you can to municipalities, what do you do, as a politician, to give people a vision of a better life so that you can stay elected?


You can tell people, says Paul Chevigny, a professor of law at New York University, that crime is rampant, even if it’s untrue, and that you’re going to get tough on criminals.


And, he adds, the crazy thing is that the message works. He calls it the populism of fear.


Chevigny is a friend, and over dinner last week, we were discussing an essay he has written that will be published late this fall in a new journal called “Working Papers.”


In it, he argues that the politics of globalization have led business and government elites to embrace the lean and the mean as the only way to retain competitive advantage. It is the path to mergers, downsizing, tax cuts, deficit reduction, and the steady shrinking of social programs.


In the United States, he says, this has meant abandoning the welfare state for what he calls the security state with its «  `prison-industrial complex’ — a vast network of prisons, both public and private, of criminal justice professionals, and of prison guards and police, which has a power and a political life of its own.’’


The transition has been achieved, Chevigny says, because voters supported politicians who hammered methodically at the need to get tougher and tougher on law and order as a means of deflecting attention from what they have been stripping away from the body politic.


It has reached the point that the rate of imprisonment in the United States is now 649 people per 100,000, a rate eleven times greater than in the Scandinavian countries, seven times greater than in Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and France, 5.4 times greater than it is in England and Scotland, and five times greater than in Canada.


Chevigny points out that a basic argument in favour of a welfare state is that it reduces crime by alleviating the social conditions that create criminals. « It is an important part of the populism of fear, then, to assert that crime is not caused by poverty and other dire social conditions, but instead is the result of choices made freely by criminals.’’


The more Chevigny spoke, the more I could see the parallels with what has been emerging in Ontario. The emphasis has been on boot camps, prison work gangs, and privatization of prisons. On calls for tougher sentencing, longer prison terms, reduced parole, and stricter laws. In short, all the elements needed to create a « prison-industrial complex’’ in Ontario.


I see Ontario Correctional Services Minister Rob Samson slamming Ottawa, as he did last week, for « coddling criminals.’’ When Statistics Canada announced last month that for the eighth consecutive year the crime rate had gone down for every kind of offence, you’d think Ontario’s Attorney General would want to take credit for the good news. But no, Jim Flaherty said violent crime was still on the upswing and had to be fought relentlessly — and this in the face of statistics saying the national rate of violent crime fell 2.4 per cent last year, and the rate of violent crime in Toronto fell by 3.9 per cent.


It’s not just the environment that I grieve for as we are being diverted by scare stories of crime. I grieve for the social fabric. You can’t have a sustainable community in Toronto when one in three children lives in poverty, the food banks are overrun by demand, daycare is pathetically inadequate, hospitals have shrunk while home care is missing, and the mentally ill are wandering the streets.

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