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.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Dion's win good for Liberals, and the country

VICTORIA - You should feel good about Stephane Dion's fourth-ballot victory to become Liberal leader, even if you loathe the party.
Dion has the usual mix of strengths and weaknesses. But he offers the Liberals a relatively fresh start. He was never implicated in the sponsorship scandal that so disgusted Canadians. He was never associated with the destructive internal party fighting that reached its peak in the Martin-Chretien wars.
More Canadians will now feel they have a real choice in the next election, which could be only months away.
That means Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives will have to work harder to sell their policies, instead of relying on Canadians' loathing for the Liberals to guarantee support.
That's good. Our system works best when there is real competition for the chance to form government. Parties have to justify - and moderate - their policies to win voters. There's a real debate, leading to better decisions. That all breaks down, as British Columbians saw in 2001, when one party collapses.
Dion is not a newcomer. He's been a Quebec MP for a decade. But he was untouched by the sponsorship scandal and has a reputation for integrity. He served in senior cabinet posts under both Paul Martin and Jean Chretien, a relatively rare achievement in that polarized world.
And, critically, he wasn't seen as the candidate of the Liberal party old guard - the people responsible for its current low status - that had largely lined up behind Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff. (That wasn't true in B.C., where the Martinite political operatives largely backed DIon.)
That was important. Ignatieff and Rae did well on the convention's first ballot. But they stalled. Delegates sent a message that they weren't interested in the choices of the establishment.
Of course it's not quite that easy to break with the past.
Dion's acceptance speech confirmed that the environment is going to be one of the themes he will hit hard in the coming months.
He has serious green credentials. As federal environment minister Dion championed the Kyoto accord and received good marks for his efforts. He'll be betting - rightly - that Harper is out of touch with Canadians on climate change. Dion is such an enthusiast he even named his pet husky Kyoto.
But the Conservatives will be able to go right back at him. Dion may have championed the deal, but he was also in cabinet when the Liberals failed to take any serious efforts to meet Canada's commitment.
Dion faces other challenges. There's been some fretting about yet another Liberal leader from Quebec, especially one with a relatively low national profile.
And there are worries about his ability to build support within that province. As the point man in 2000 on the federal Accountability Act, which imposed terms for any future votes on separatism, Dion took a lot of flak.
That's a plus in the rest of Canada, establishing his federalist credentials. (His convention performance suggests fears about his English skills are overblown.)
And Dion's economic policies are still largely unknown, although he will point to the record of growth under the Liberal governments.
But the good news is that Canadians now have a real choice in the next election between two parties capable of forming government. (That is not to discount the significance of the NDP, Bloc Quebecois and even Greens.)
And they will be offered significantly different policy choices.
Not just on the environment. Dion has called for an honourable withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, arguing too little is being accomplished at too great a cost. No matter where Canadians stand on the issues, they should welcome a real, vigorous debate on the mission we have asked our troops to undertake.
Those kinds of debates are much more likely with Dion's victory. That makes it a step forward for all Canadians.
Footnote: Dion is 51 and was a hotshot academic in Quebec before entering politics. He's widely seen as very bright and hard-working, well-prepared before he tackles issues. Critics complain he can be close-minded when he believes he is right and lacks charisma. Calgary Herald columnist Don Martin describes him as Stephen Harper with a French accent.