Election Issue 2: Crime and Victims’ Rights

Posted on April 10, 2011


The Opposition Socialist Separatist Just Visiting Coalition are soft on crime! If they are given any power, then we will be swiftly overrun by hordes of drug dealers and human smugglers! We need to get tough on crime!

I don’t think I need to point out the party on which I have based these only slightly exaggerated statements. A recent Globe and Mail focus piece reveals that crime continues to be a significant issue in at least a few ridings. Fair enough; no amount of violent crime is acceptable and realistic measures to reduce its occurrence are a perfectly reasonable political goal. With this in mind, however, it is important to note that the status quo is actually proving quite effective in the pursuit of this goal. The violent crime severity index has been falling for several years now, so there is no urgent need to change our policies on this matter.

If we do decide to change our policies, then we should recognize one very well established fact: Tough on crime policies don’t do anything to actually reduce crime. It turns out that any potential penalty for a crime is so far off that most offenders, who don’t tend to have a very good sense of deferred consequences anyway, really don’t care if the law says that they will get five or ten years for their offense. Tough on Crime legislation is not about reducing crime. It is, instead, about making the population feel like something is being done to reduce crime. Its main purpose is to cynically exploit the population’s perceived vulnerability to get support for legislation which does nothing  to address the actual public safety issue at hand.

Of course, tough on crime policies are not only presented because they supposedly work. They are also frequently presented as fulfilling a moral mandate that the rights of victims be respected. The victims of violent crime are supposed to have a right to see the person who harmed them brought to justice. I don’t entirely reject the notion of victims’ rights. I have been lucky enough to never experience violent crime, and I hope that fortune continues. If I were ever a victim of violent crime, I would have a few justified demands to make on society. Victims of crime have a right to be taken seriously by law enforcement officials and to not be doubly victimized through victim-blaming bullshit*. They, like the accused, have a right to speedy closure so that they can put the whole thing behind them. And they have a right to be protected from reprisal should those they accuse attempt to use further violence to intimidate them. They have a host of other rights which the judicial process must be prepared to provide. They do not, however, have a right to see somebody else suffer.

This latter point is what Conservatives usually mean when they talk about victims’ rights. There is an implicit assumption that if you are attacked by a violent criminal, you get to have the state enact revenge on them on your behalf. There is, however, no good ethical argument to be made in favour of this. Punishment basically introduces a bunch of unhappiness into the world, with little if any happiness produced to counterbalance it. The appeal of punishment is not rational, but emotional. When we are harmed, we crave the visitation of further harm upon those who harmed us. Primal cravings, however, are no good as a basis for a judicial system. Not only that, but they aren’t even all that satisfying when realized. I’m going to let George Orwell speak on this point:

“It is absurd to blame any German or Austrian Jew for getting his own back
on the Nazis. Heaven knows what scores this particular man may have had
to wipe out; very likely his whole family had been murdered; and after
all, even a wanton kick to a prisoner is a very tiny thing compared with
the outrages committed by the Hitler régime. But what this scene, and
much else that I saw in Germany, brought home to me was that the whole
idea of revenge and punishment is a childish daydream. Properly speaking,
there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to
commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as
the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also. “

I cannot possibly hope to justify this fantastic essay with a short quote. Follow the link if you have the time. The essay was written by a master rhetorician at a time when the world’s collective desire for revenge was most justified, and you will find, I think, an argument far more convincing than I could ever write as to why revenge and justice are quite different concepts.

Tough on Crime policies are demanded by neither ethical maxims nor practical considerations, and in fact the kind of approach to public safety that the Harper Government has been championing runs afoul of both. I’m all for taking decisive action to reduce the crime rate, but that action should be based both on evidence and careful ethical consideration, not a kneejerk desire, brought on by sensationalist media coverage of crime, to emulate Jack Bauer. If any of the parties have any ideas in that vein, then let them bring them forward.

*For more on victim-blaming bullshit and what can be done about it, check out Slutwalk, as well as my good friend Liz’s coverage thereof at Steeltown Adventure Friends.