Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A tough-on-crime approach to justice that actually works

Instead of jailing repeat petty criminals, we should send them to mandatory addiction treatment

In a season of tough talk on crime, I propose a challenge to our political leaders. In Canada, one group of criminals commits a disproportionate number of crimes that we could easily reduce with more coercive sentencing. However, our usual form of coercion -- imprisonment -- doesn't work for them. They need a different kind of sentence. But to make that happen -- and to significantly reduce the number of crimes they commit -- would require will and wisdom that our legislators can't seem to muster.

The legal system refers to these men -- they are almost all men -- as chronic offenders. What everyone knows, but the justice system doesn't acknowledge, is that they are also drug addicts, hooked on heroin or crack cocaine. They steal not for gain but to support their addiction, to pay for their next fix.

This has nothing to do with getting high. For an addict, the point is to avoid the effects of withdrawal, which in the case of heroin can include cramps and muscle spasms, fever, cold sweats and goose bumps (hence the phase "cold turkey"), insomnia, vomiting, diarrhea and a condition called "itchy blood," which can cause compulsive scratching so severe that it leads to open sores. For addicts, drug use is not a lifestyle choice that's easy to change.

Many have been addicted for their entire adult lives, and as a result have spent half their lives behind bars, serving dozens of sentences for minor crimes. These are the "revolving door" criminals -- arrested, tried, sentenced to a few weeks or months, then dumped back out on the street, only to be arrested, tried and convicted again a few weeks later.

Canada has hundreds of criminals like that, mainly in the larger cities. Vancouver alone recently identified 379. According to a report by the Vancouver Police Department, the vast majority were addicted to drugs or alcohol. Many also suffer from a mental disorder, generally untreated. Between 2001 and 2006, Vancouver's few hundred chronic offenders, as a group, were responsible for 26,755 police contacts -- more than 5,000 contacts per year, 14 a day. The costs are staggering. Arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations end up costing some $20,000 per criminal per month -- per month! There has to be a better way.

Punishment alone is not it, though, for a couple of reasons. For one, the idea of punishing criminals is based at least partly on the concept of specific deterrence. You steal, we lock you up. Applied most strongly to property crimes -- which is what these offenders mainly commit -- specific deterrence assumes that the criminal is a rational actor who will consider: Is it worth it? And in fact, specific deterrence often works; many offenders really do stop committing crimes after fairly short jail sentences.

But not addicts.

The problem is the presumption of a rational actor. That is exactly what we do not have with drug addicts, who do not -- usually cannot -- stop to consider the likely punishment for a crime they are about to commit. They see only the escape from the more immediate and dire punishments of drug deprivation. By comparison, the threat of being caught and thrown in jail is nothing.

As well, because chronic offenders tend to commit minor crimes and draw short sentences -- say, 30 to 90 days for theft -- their lives shift constantly between jail and the streets.

We could use longer sentences to "warehouse" chronic offenders -- the American "three strikes and you're out" approach. But long-term imprisonment would be a very high-cost way to deal with what is really a public health issue.

And there's the crux of the problem.

The criminal justice system is not designed to treat addicts. While prisons do provide some drug treatment, it is almost always short-term and underfunded.

Clearly, Canadians need more protection from chronic offenders than we are now getting.

With chronic offenders, we have an issue of both criminal law and public health. Addicted offenders must be required to undergo serious, long-term drug treatment.

Since 1996, Alberta law has required minors with an apparent alcohol or drug addiction to participate, with or without their consent, in an assessment and treatment program. Saskatchewan and Manitoba have similar legislation and even allow parents of drug-addicted children to ask a court to require treatment, whether or not the child is in trouble with the law.

Although the research is scant, mandatory treatment does appear to have about the same success rate as voluntary treatment. A 1970s American study looked at the effectiveness of methadone maintenance treatment for those who entered the program under high, moderate or no coercion and found no significant difference in outcomes for the three groups.

Given the costs of incarceration -- not counting the costs to future victims -- paying for mandatory drug treatment for them hardly seems an issue, even if it only works some of the time. As for whether mandatory treatment is somehow inhumane, how humane is it to sentence these addicts to punishments we know don't work and then dump them back on the street no better than before?

Politics aside, Canadians deserve evidence-based criminal justice policies that actually reduce crime. Our challenge is to make the tough choices that move beyond "tough on crime" rhetoric and produce real change.
source: James C. Morton and The Ottawa Citizen

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