The best way to fight crime is to keep people out of the system in the first place

Feature | Gregory Beatty | Jan. 13, 2022

When Regina police chief Evan Bray met with media on Dec. 29 to deliver his year-end report, he had sombre news. In 2021, Regina had record numbers of both murders (14) and overdose deaths (118 as of Oct. 31, with more to come).

The news was equally bleak in Saskatoon, where chief Troy Cooper spoke to reporters on Dec. 21. Like Regina, Saskatoon is in the grip of an overdose crisis from toxic fentanyl. Crystal meth is still a problem, too. Murders were down to seven in 2021, the lowest since 2017. But guns were a growing concern, with police seizing 339 — many of them handguns.

Those weren’t the only police statistics making headlines in December. In both cities, police budgets were up for debate. Thanks to the schwack of scary stats, both forces received healthy increases: $3.5 million in Regina, bringing the total operating and capital budget to $108.4 million; and a two-pronged increase in Saskatoon from $104 million in 2021 to $119.7 million this year then $124.6 million in 2023.

Those eye-popping budgets were topped up in Regina by the Saskatchewan Party government chipping in $1.3 million for a plane to do regular aerial patrols of the city. Saskatoon police have had a plane since 2005. The annual operating cost is around $260,000.

Police & Politics

There’s lethal irony in the province’s generosity. It was the government’s decisions to slash income support payments and deny funding for safe consumption sites and other harm reduction that inflamed the homeless and opioid crises (and related gang and gun crime) this summer.

When Bray and Cooper spoke to media, both emphasized the need to address the underlying social, economic and health challenges that drive most of the crime police see in struggling neighbourhoods.

Unfortunately, it’s a message the Sask. Party government doesn’t seem interested in hearing. Instead, it’s talking-up the idea of creating two new police forces: a government-run force to police the Legislative grounds and a provincial force to replace the RCMP as part of premier Scott Moe’s “nation within a nation” pipedream.

That’s no surprise, really. “Law and Order” is a tried-and-true plank for conservatives across North America — one that’s in line with their broader ethos that fetishizes individual freedom and liberty.

“We do live in a society where individuals are seen as being responsible for their own choices, and therefore their own problems,” says Gloria DeSantis, an associate Justice Studies professor at the University of Regina.

Rather than make front-end investments to tackle the root causes of crime, Canada has what DeSantis calls a “crime control” model. “It emphasizes the control of offenders with quick arrests and convictions as well as the protection of society through punishment as a deterrent to crime,” she says.

That’s not to say there haven’t been any front-end investments. Many fine non-profits help people in crisis avoid conflict with the law. But the big bucks still go to crime control — like the $120 million the Moe government committed in 2020 to build a new, expanded remand centre in Saskatoon.

By any metric society might purport to care about — cost, efficiency, equity, community safety — our current crime control model is a losing proposition. And DeSantis would like to see governments at all levels take a more proactive approach to crime based on a “social determinants” model used in healthcare.

“The social determinants are all these factors that lead to people being in poor health,” she says. “If you live in poverty, you likely don’t have access to good food. You also likely live in poor housing, which means you might not have proper heat in winter, or you might have mould. You likely don’t have access to a doctor, or prescription medicine, so all these things come together.”

DeSantis resists using the term “social determinants” with crime, as it implies, in a Minority Report precog kind of way, that if someone grows up in certain conditions they’re destined to become a criminal.

Instead, she suggests looking at crime through a social justice lens.

“Social justice encourages us to do a critical analysis of structural factors that create injustices that can be linked to crime,” says DeSantis. “This is also known as ‘upstream thinking’, and it’s an important preventative strategy that should inform public policy on crime.

“[It’s] asking, all the time, why crime is happening, and not simply jumping to blame the individual.”

The core premise of our current justice system is that people are autonomous actors with free will. It’s an idea as old as the Bible but it’s not really supported by recent science in genetics, behavioural psychology and other fields which paint a much more complex picture of human life.

It also ignores the impact structural factors can have on different people in our increasingly stratified society. Some come courtesy of our winner-take-all capitalist economy, while others are imposed by governments through various laws and policies — often in support of that economy.

DeSantis brings up the deinstitutionalization of people with mental health issues as an example. That changed several decades ago at the urging of advocates, but it was with the understanding that governments would use the money saved to buttress social supports for people to live in the community.

That last part didn’t happen.

“When governments make cuts to support programs or get out of building affordable housing, we end up seeing people hanging out in front of businesses or in public parks,” says DeSantis. “Then police get called, and what was once a homeless or mental health problem becomes a criminal justice problem just because they were loitering.”

Throw in the intergenerational effects of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of discrimination, and it takes a special kind of privilege to think everyone who runs afoul of the law has done so willingly and therefore deserves punishment.

Stitch In Time

The best strategy to address crime, says DeSantis, is to keep people out of the criminal justice system in the first place.

“Statistics show that the largest portion of people who come into contact with the system are young people under the age of 25,” she says. “The key question is, how do we ensure young people are prevented from making bad choices to begin with?

“And if they do make a bad choice, how do we get to them before they go too far down that path?”

Examples of preventative responses include anti-gang programs in schools and food programs for those in need. Neighbourhood associations and rec programs help keep youth off the street and engaged in their community. Libraries and outreach programming such as neighbourhood patrols are good investments, too. Same with emergency shelters for youth on the street.

Again, most of these assets are already out there. They just need better funding and to be less constrained by governments and funders so they can move forward on innovative responses.

But that said, rethinking the role of police is another must.

Right now, North American police are highly militarized — to the point of purchasing (or being outright gifted) used military-grade equipment including combat gear. This is the wrong way to go.

U.S. police have long been notorious for killing civilians. In 2019, the U.S. rate was 33.5 killings per 10 million people. Canada’s per capita rate (9.8 per 10 million people) is pretty high, too. For comparison, New Zealand’s rate is 2.1, Germany’s is 1.3, England/Wales 0.5 and Japan 0.2.

As those statistics make clear [see sidebar], many countries approach policing differently than North America. In some European nations, officers receive two or three years training before being deployed. In the U.S., the average is 21 weeks. Other countries put greater emphasis on using de-escalation before resorting to force. Another common strategy is to partner with trauma and health professionals to help people in crisis.

“There are models where we integrate police into our community,” says DeSantis. “When we do that, police are seen as part of the neighbourhood so it’s not a conflicted relationship where they suddenly show up to enforce law. Rather, it’s about relationship building where issues can be diverted from the criminal justice system. I’ve been involved with this kind of approach and seen the positive impacts.”

When Bray and Cooper spoke at their news conferences, both said officers are often asked to deal with issues they’re not trained for. Both forces have implemented some “community-style” programs.

Saskatoon, for instance, has three Police and Crisis Teams which pair a patrol officer with a mobile crisis unit member to deal with mental health calls. In Regina, police have a satellite station in mâmawêyatitân centre which also has a high school, public library, community association, daycare and more.

While that’s all well and good, when Regina City Council tip-toed around the idea of a small cut to the police budget in 2020, the Regina Police Association tweeted a warning that the cultural unit working with the Indigenous community would be the first program cut.

So yeah, not exactly bubbling enthusiasm over community policing from the police.

“The current criminal justice system is expensive. It’s also very inequitable in its treatment of certain groups of people,” says DeSantis. “As a social justice scholar, I think we could do better by funding programs that prevent crime. But this is all caught up in how we think of criminals and criminal behaviour.

“Poverty, safety, security, violence, abuse, addictions — these are all social problems, not personal problems,” she says. “If we peel back the layers of the onion far enough, we can see where these root causes came from. And they stem from places other than individuals’ bad behaviour.” 


Punishment Vs. Restorative Justice

Another crime stat where the U.S. stands out on the world stage is incarceration rate. Thanks to its hard-ass approach to crime, the U.S. locks up a shocking 664 people per 100,000 population.

Canada’s per capita rate is 104, which is lower than countries such as the U.K. (129) and Portugal (111), but higher than France and Belgium (93), Denmark (72) and Norway (54).

Just like policing, not every country follows the same model for dispensing justice.

“Our current model is based on corrections. If you do something wrong, you need to be punished and go into the correctional system,” says social justice scholar Gloria DeSantis.

Other countries use models based more on restorative justice, with the goal of diverting offenders before they get caught up in what advocates describe as “a revolving door” where they find themselves in repeated conflict with the law.

DeSantis says our adversarial court system routinely pushes offenders to deny or downplay their crime, or they plea bargain to a lesser charge. But under restorative justice they engage with those who have been harmed by their actions.

“Often, people say restorative justice is this loosey-goosey thing where people get off easy,” says DeSantis. “But research shows it’s excruciatingly difficult for the offender because they have to face the harm they caused and why they did it. If we’re serious about offender accountability and responsibility for harm caused, then we need to shift our focus away from a punishment model.

“There is hope for change because there are some brilliant minds already working on systems change in Canada,” she concludes. “We have prevention-oriented programs as well as restorative justice interventions… just not enough of either one.”