Canada, it goes without saying, follows the Unites States like a puppy unable to keep up with its mother. Politically, culturally and even economically, we’re always running at least ten paces behind the world’s acknowledged trendsetter.
A recent case in point comes courtesy of The New Yorker magazine. In his piece, “Prison Revolt”, Bill Keller writes, “Criminal-justice reformers like to say that if a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, a liberal is a conservative who has served time. . .These days, it is hard to ignore a rising conservative clamor to rehabilitate the criminal-justice system.
“Conservatives are as quick as liberals to note that the United States, a country with less than five per cent of the world’s population, houses nearly twenty-five per cent of the world’s prisoners. Some 2.2 million Americans are now incarcerated – about triple the number locked up in the 1980s, when, in a panic over drugs and urban crime, conservative legislators demanded tougher policies, and liberals who feared being portrayed as weak went along with them. In this historical context, today, Mr. Keller points out, “African-Americans are nearly six times as likely as whites to be incarcerated, and Latinos are more than twice as likely. More than 40 per cent of released offenders return to prison within three years.”
The piece essentially chronicles the odd, even counter-intuitive, rise of social conscience among some the most bloody-minded hardliners in the United States and, essential, asks the question: What’s going on here?
As Mr. Keller writes, “Several Republican Presidential candidates – Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, and Ted Cruz – have been embraced by Right on Crime, a campaign to promote ‘successful, conservative solutions’ to the punitive excesses of American law and order. In February, the American Conservative Union’s Conservative Political Action Conference, which serves as an audition for right-wing Presidential aspirants, featured three panels on criminal-justice reform, including one called Prosecutors Gone Wild.”
Meanwhile, “Bernard Kerik, who was Rudolph Giuliani’s police commissioner and served three years in prison for tax fraud and other crimes, now promotes an agenda of reforms, including voting rights for ex-felons. The libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch are donating money to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, to help insure that indigent defendants get competent legal representation, and they are co-sponsoring conferences on judicial reform.”
What seems to be driving this progressive trend within this formerly regressive segment of American society is a number of factors, some of which are easy to understand. State prisons cost a lot to maintain; keeping people out of jail saves taxpayers money. Then again, there does seem to be a genuine interest in social utility. As Mr. Keller quotes one Republican figure, “It’s human dignity that really motivates us.”
Now, flash over to the Great White North, and what do we observe? This federal government is tearing pages from the Republican playbook and burning them on a pyre of law-and-order moralism that properly belongs to the Richard Nixon era.
Despite seeing rates of violent crime plummet to 40-year lows, Ottawa’s majority lawmakers prefer to throw more people in overcrowded prisons for increasingly feeble offences. They insist that Canada’s city streets are not safe even though such claims are demonstrably false. And, naturally, they castigate those who disagree with them, calling their critics sympathizers and colluders of and with the “evil-doers” in our midst.
All of which feels uncomfortably sophomoric in a nation that once lead the world in grown-up behaviour – especially now, as we must look to the United States for the latest trends in social maturity.