Prime Time Crime


(Published in the Similkameen Spotlight week of Nov. 28, 2005)

In Praise of Punishment

  By John Martin

It just keeps getting better and better for criminals in Vancouver and the rest of BC.

First came the report Beyond the Revolving Door: A New Response to Chronic Offenders  (.pdf), which confirmed street crime in the nation's third largest city is out of control.  The 134 page report concedes that the revolving door justice system has been a horrific failure in attempting to address repeat offenders and property crime.  As quick as police can arrest law breakers, they’re back on the street committing more offences.

Then the Vancouver Board of Trade released an analysis, Crime in Vancouver (.pdf), showing Greater Vancouver was the worst major metropolitan area in Canada for property crime.

And now comes another report Robbery in Vancouver: Time for Action (pdf.) confirming, once again, that sentences are lighter in Vancouver than other jurisdictions.  The Canadian Bankers Association released data showing that fewer bank robbers are given jail time in Vancouver than Toronto, Edmonton or Calgary.  And when they are sentenced to custody, it’s for considerably shorter periods of time.

BC, and the Lower Mainland in particular, is the best place to do crime.   All other things being equal, offenders face fewer consequences here than anywhere else in the country.

True, punishment doesn’t always work and carelessly applied it can certainly make a bad situation much worse.  But carefully thought out, punishment is a most effective deterrent and crime prevention strategy.

Consider the case of marijuana grow-ops.  Anyone in Washington State convicted of running a grow-op can expect a minimum five years in jail.  If they’re growing on their own property they’ve just lost their house.  If they have young children they can expect social services to remove them.

What happens in BC?  The grower loses his light bulbs and might pay a fine equivalent to a couple ounces of product.  And he’s back in business the next day.  Consequently, grow-ops are not a problem in Washington State.  While in BC they number in the thousands.

So let’s lay the “tough penalties don’ t deter” myth to rest.

Clearly, more treatment for addicted offenders and better coordination between social services, health and criminal justice agencies is required.  Concerns of under funding in these areas are completely legitimate.  But that doesn’t necessitate we roll our eyes in disgust at the mention of increasing sanctions and resign ourselves to the fast diminishing quality of life BC’s law-abiding citizens are experiencing.

The highly touted, Four Pillars Drug Strategy advocating equal attention to education, treatment, enforcement, and harm reduction is all well and good.  But it’s missing a fifth pillar – punishment.

Because as the grow-op analogy demonstrates, punishment works and it works well.

It’s BC’s failed “catch and release” justice policy that warrants retiring.

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at

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