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January 29, 2014

Fighting crime the right way, not Harper's

The Canadian Charger

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Reading the first chapter of Irvin Waller's new Smarter Crime Control (Lanham, Maryland, 2014), you will be immediately reminded of the tribulations of Ignaz Semmelweis. Semmelweis was a 19th Century Hungarian physician in Austria and Hungary who identified the cause of women dying in hospital of what was called childbed fever, death after childbirth.

It was a matter of infection caused by physicians who did not wash their hands, especially after doing autopsies.  He instituted hand washing with a chorine solution, and as a result the death rates tumbled.  Yet, he was eased out, hand washing ceased, and the mortality rate shot back up.  Toward the end of his life, he took to writing bitter diatribes aimed at prominent physicians who rejected his approach.

Waller’s opening chapter appears to be written in total frustration, which could well be summed up thus:  “I’ve told you.  Other experts have told you.  There are more effective ways, less expensive ways to fight crime.  For God’s sake, why can’t you just get on with it?”  Of course, he did not say this in just so many words.

Instead, Waller wrote his carefully documented work on crime control and prevention. 

He and others told us all this before, but now he has put it all together in one neat package and tied a ribbon around it.  His book and the references in the bibliography and notes are bound to be the go-to work on how to do it right for some time to come. 

While the book is directed at the American experience, most of what he says applies in Canada as well, especially since the Harper government is moving full speed ahead in the American direction, more prisons and worse overcrowding in them, even while the United States is beginning to move away from that pattern.

Waller footnotes programs and reports, carefully describing the bases for recommendations and even noting when the evidence of effectiveness is not watertight. 

He would like to see police moving away from reaction to 911 calls to careful emphasis on serving high crime areas of a city.  More is not necessarily better.  Focusing police work is his ticket, following repeat offenders and focusing on repeat victims, as examples.

In talking about anti-gang undertakings, he notes that sometimes success is its own enemy.  It’s a matter of—Well, that was great. We don’t need the social supports that were essential for this success anymore.  We won.  And so after a while conditions deteriorate again.  A smart approach maintains the programs that work and keeps the staff.  In reality, the staff are seen as expendable.  A precious resource is dissipated.  Of course, the police remain. 

He also has recommendations for courts, including establishment of specialized courts with appropriate resources available to them: mental health courts, drug courts, and domestic violence courts, for example.  Restorative justice approaches such as victim-offender reconciliation and Aboriginal sentencing circles are seen as less expensive and in many cases more effective than incarceration and more satisfying for victims.  He wants decriminalization of marihuana and operation of safe-injection sites.  Such moves would cut down on excessive incarceration, and marihuana could become a source of tax revenue.

When it comes to prisons, he proposes that “nonviolent, non serious, and non-sex-crime offenders serve their sentence in the community,” with shorter sentences, supervised treatment, and enabling the payment of restitution to victims whenever possible.”  Consequences for offenders need to be limited so that they can reintegrate into the community successfully, with appropriate support groups. 

In areas with heavy concentrations of criminal behavior, Waller wants positive parenting programs, such as nurse visits to at-risk mothers and early childhood education.  But these may in fact not end up saving money, as these may become social utilities demanded for everyone in the community.  Instead of saving money in fighting crime in the areas prescribed, they may simply make society as a whole better off.  If visits to at-risk mothers are good, why not visiting nurses seeing all new mothers, and why not universal child care?

The book also looks at gun violence and traffic offenses.  When it comes to repeat drinking offenders who have already lost their license, you wonder why he does not suggest seizure of the vehicle.

In order to prevent violence against women, he wants greater implementation of programs to change male attitudes toward women in high school and post-secondary institutions.  He speaks of programs that have been tried in schools and that have been verified statistically in surveys as effective.  There is, he urges, a need for more funding for women’s shelters and rape crisis centres. 

But the small number of actual cases seen in many rape crisis centres does not justify the cost of staff 24/7, except perhaps in the largest cities.  Their function instead should fall to women’s shelters or hospitals. 

As for shelters, as with other female-oriented programs, pay rates are too low. There has been a tendency, especially among women, to see the work as a cause and to see a demand for adequate pay as unworthy. The important work in women’s shelters needs to be adequately rewarded. At times the approach of shelters as a “cause” leads to ideological and personality clashes that result in boards actually closing a shelter, a situation that is unconscionable. The board does not own the facility. It operates it in the interest of the community.

This book reads smoothly and is highly accessible for the general reader.  However, it will also serve as a textbook for the student and as a useful guide for policy makers and politicians. There is a lot more to consider in this book.

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