Thursday, December 07, 2006

Catching criminals before they steal your car

VICTORIA - What if instead of waiting for people to commit crimes, you identified and stopped them before they broke into your house or grabbed your mom’s purse?
That was the premise of a Tom Cruise flick of a couple of years ago called Minority Report. Future police were able to identify people on the brink of killing a spouse or committing some other crime - don’t ask how - and sweep in for a preventive arrest.
And it’s also, minus the sci-fi, what the B.C. Progress Board is recommending in its report on reducing crime in the province.
Instead of focusing on hiring more police and building more jails to house more criminals - an approach that hasn’t worked all that well so far - the Progress Board report says we should work harder at keeping people from committing crimes.
It’s a good idea, one of a succession of first-rate efforts from the board since Premier Gordon Campbell set it up in 2001.
There’s no fancy science or magic tests involved.
The report says we know what turns people into criminals. Or at least we know about the people who commit 90 per cent of the crimes. There are still the crimes of calculation, blind anger or - based on my brief stint as a court reporter - the extraordinarily rare and scary people who are just evil.
But mostly we can look out into our communities and know who will be committing crimes in a few years.
Which means we can stop them, or at least a lot of them.
The report from the Progress Board, a hard-headed, business-dominated group, recommends that approach.
The major cause of criminal activity - no surprise - is drug and alcohol use, the report notes.
People steal to pay for both. Both make them stupid and unable to see the consequences of their crimes. Users are angrier, more violent. Suppliers - except for the Liquor Distribution Branch - commit crimes to protect their businesses.
About four out of five federal penitentiary inmates are substance abusers, the report found. Deal with that problem and crime plummets.
But, the report found, we aren’t doing well. We talk about the four-pillar approach - prevention, harm reduction, treatment and enforcement. But treatment isn’t available across most of the province and there’s no help to keep people sober. The report says the problem is especially serious outside the Lower Mainland.
Much more needs to be done, the report says: "Most of all there needs to be some action."
It’s not just drugs. The report identifies a second - equally unsurprising - cause of crime. That guy shoplifting today was a neglected or poorly parented four-year-old in 1995. Give kids some help and a fair chance and they’ll do OK, the report says.
But we haven’t given many kids a chance. "Clearly, existing health and social services that address childhood development issues are not adequate at this time," the board reports.Little kids need help; they don’t get it.
Then there are the crazy people, or, more politely, the mentally ill. Hospitalization is rare now. But there’s not enough community support either. So people with mental illness end up in jail. The justice system has a “revolving door” just for them, the report says.
The Progress Board identifies another potential crime group that includes people from all of the first three categories. People living "impoverished and chaotic lifestyles" are prone to crime, the report notes.
These are incredibly difficult people. Think of the hardcore streetpeople you see. But the board’s report says making an effort to deal with their problems and "colossal unmet needs" would pay off in reduced crime.
All these people have something in common besides a propensity for crime. They also aren’t going to be deterred by more enforcement or tougher penalties. A mentally ill addict with fetal alcohol disorder doesn’t calculate the odds of getting caught and punished. She leaps.
Just imagine, stopping crimes before they happen. All we have to do is try.
Footnote: The report offers three options for dealing with the drug trade: Legalize, or if that’s not possible or practical, then spend a great deal on a serious 10-year effort to wipe out the trade. Or, the report suggests, launch the attack with legalization to follow. The board makes no recommendation on which course the government should choose.


Anonymous said...

Paul, where have you been for the last 25 or 30 years? It's been obvious since at least those days that the most serious consequence of marijuana use was getting charged and convicted for it. Many of the people running our province, our country, have used or still use pot. The decades of shear hypocracy with regard to drug "abuse", while alcohol was and continues to be glorified (wine tours/single malts/designer brews...) has been a major factor in the spread of hard drug use. Young people have listened all their lives to you (the 'establishment') telling them how bad pot is. They look around and see their well adjusted and normal parents smoking pot and using other illegal drugs on a daily basis. They see how destructive alcohol is in so many ways but find it being legally advertised and sold 24/7.
They just don't believe what big brother has to say, and they will find out for themselves. It's too bad that the bogey man was used, rather than the rational truth, to educate this young generation about drugs. We've got a problem, that's for sure, and you (the media and the rest of the 'establishment') are a large part of it for not speaking out all through the years.

Anonymous said...

I think the first one to comment believes its marjuana, and everyone seems to use it.Having never touched the stuff I'm not qualified to have an opion on just how habit forming it is and how bad the craving to get it. Well I don't believe that's what Paul was talking about.hard drugs are addictive and unless the user is very rich she or he gets the bucks for their fix somehow. It may be your car, your house , prostitution, robbing you on the street, or any other way to get money right now.

Anonymous said...

You just have to look at the high ratios in prison of people raised in poverty or with mental illness who are set up to fail unless they have everything else going for them. Another big group includes people with "milder" developmental disabilities (learning disabilities, FASD, Aspergers Syndrome, etc) who are excluded from most support systems--special ed in the school years, community living as adults, etc. Investing in these groups to set them up to succeed instead could make a big dent. I wonder if you'd also get a significant additional reduction by downsizing the population of "problem adults" in any community so that they don't get the kind of critical mass that feeds upon itself and others in the Downtown East Side.

But as one of the many parents & professionals constantly advocating for these services to be adequately funded, and instead seeing constant cuts and declining willingness in society to fund them, it's hard to see this report as telling government or the public anything they don't already know.

Governments knows all this; most people who vote know this too. So why does it never happen? I suspect it may be something to do with the structures and contexts within which key decisions get made: value systems or perceived value systems (is reducing poverty and crime really more important to us than another boost to the economy or shorter hospital wait times?); incentives and disincentives to doing "the right thing"; the influence wielded by opposing/competing forces, etc. I think until we get to the bottom of that and fix that part of it, we'll just continue doing what everyone knows is wrong.