Do Tough-on-Crime Policies Work?
A Conversation with Professor Benjamin Perrin.
I’ve studied our criminal justice system for a while now, with four and a half years at the University of the Fraser Valley in Criminology and Criminal Justice, a law degree with classes on Criminal Law and years of work as a Native Courtworker working within the system trying to support Indigenous people.
This weeks episode is with Professor Benjamin Perrin, my old law professor and the author of the book Indictment: The Criminal Justice System on Trial.
The criminal mind and law is a fascinating topic to many, with shows like Law & Order, NCIS, CSI and Criminal Minds. But personally I’ve always been more fascinated by the real system, its failures and its brilliant aspects.
In my conversation with Benjamin Perrin we discuss his latest book in the context of the current tough-on-crime agenda being pushed by various politicians and political parties.
I was at the University of the Fraser Valley when Stephen Harper was pushing through the first wave of tough-on-crime policies which often include harsher bail sentences, forced treatment, longer jail sentences, more police officers and higher arrest rates.
When we see greater rates of homelessness, higher rates of public drug use, more petty crimes like theft and public mischief we often look to these policies to address the issue. But do they work?
According to my esteemed guest, the answer is a resounding no.
So, one might wonder, why do Conservative factions, and even certain progressive political entities, rally behind the tough-on-crime agenda?
Professor Perrin elucidates that these policies, although arguably ineffective in the long run, create an illusion of immediate results. They are straightforward, easily understood by the masses, and reliably secure political endorsement and votes.
This naturally leads us to a pivotal question: If we wish to sidestep the pitfalls of repeating past mistakes, what should our approach be?
This intriguing query finds its answer not just in my enlightening conversation with Professor Perrin but is also intricately addressed in his book.
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“If you want to turn a man into an animal, lock him in a cage without the resources to build himself back up”.
In the words of Benjamin Perrin, this book was born of two specific events. First, Professor Perrin received a hand written letter from an Indigenous inmate who made the comment “If you want to turn a man into an animal, lock him in a cage without the resources to build himself back up”.
The second was when former Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson Raybould conducted public consultations with the provocative question “If you could design a new criminal justice system from scratch what would it look like”.
Indictment thoughtfully guides readers through the key failures of our current criminal justice system including trauma, substance use, mental healthy, poverty, homelessness, Indigenous people, victims and the potential solutions.
As someone who cares a lot about these issues, I appreciated the genuine effort and intellectual honesty that Benjamin brought not only to the conversation but also to his writing.
Professor Perrin describes his past work as the top criminal justice advisor to Stephen Harper and how his perspective shifted after meeting with people impacted by the system. He explains that when he was in that role he had 3 main beliefs.
It wasn’t treating victims fairly.
It was too lenient and we need harsher penalties.
It was too slow and inefficient.
Perrin admits that he still believes that the system doesn’t sufficiently serve victims, and that it is still slow and inefficient but his perspective change can be found on the second point. He doesn’t believe that harsher penalties solve many of the problems we face. In fact, he argues that it does the opposite.
Incarcerating individuals who are homeless, addicted to substances, and committing crimes like theft under $5000, will not be solved by incarceration. It will temporarily house individuals with other criminals. it doesn’t increase housing, increase access to treatment centres, or provide people the financial means to take care of themselves.
My respect for Benjamin Perrin has only grown, witnessing his willingness to reassess and evolve his perspectives. All too often, individuals ardently cling to their beliefs, zealously defending them against all odds rather than objectively evaluating their validity and applicability.
For a deeper dive into his thoughts and experiences, I highly recommend his book, "Indictment." Additionally, our comprehensive discussion is available for streaming on platforms like YouTube, Apple Podcasts, and Spotify.