Prime Time Crime  


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of Jan. 29, 2007)

Tough sentences do work - but you're not allowed to know it


  By John Martin

How many times have you heard the experts insist that tougher prison sentences don’t work?  Probably more than you can count.

The Harper government’s plans to crack down on criminals through mandatory minimums, three strikes you’re out type sentencing, and changes to parole have been widely denounced and ridiculed.  The most vocal critics; criminologists, law professors and lawyers, maintain that tough sentences do nothing to reduce crime and will only result in increased costs.  Even senior federal bureaucrats advised the government that get-tough policies would not make our streets safer.

Every time government announces a new strategy to take criminals off the streets, it’s dismissed as naïve, simplistic and wrongheaded.  Only a mean spirited, uninformed Neanderthal would support such measures, right?

Well now comes evidence that officials in the federal Justice and Public Safety departments deliberately withheld research that demonstrated a clear link between longer prison sentences and a reduction in violent crime.

The walls recently came crashing down when Ian Lee, a public policy professor at Carleton University, addressed a parliamentary justice committee.  Lee explained that public servants have ignored and denied a large body of research confirming the benefits of get-tough sentencing.

Lee presented MPs with Ivy League research heralding the results of sentence reforms in Florida, California and other jurisdictions – research that was conveniently absent when officials advised government to avoid cracking down.  He pointed to rigorous studies that show crime falling as much as 50% following the imposition of mandatory sentences.

Lee called for an investigation into a civil service he suggests is “philosophically” bent. 

He says, “This behavior is at complete variance with our goal, our value of a professional, non-partisan public service.” Lee doesn’t deny a body of research disputes the value of mandatory minimums.  Still, he argues, “there’s a healthy debate, a vigorous, extended and protracted debate, and that was not disclosed at all.”

Personally, I’ve seen this for decades.  Criminology textbooks have always ignored or discredited any research that even remotely concludes public safety can be enhanced through tough, crime control policies.  Not surprisingly, criminologists tend to reject any initiative that would keep even the most chronic and violent predators incarcerated.  Dominated by social workers and socialists, get-tough approaches have little support in this field.

But while public safety officials enthusiastically collected research from this constituency, they ignored crime related studies from less ideologically inclined empiricists in economics and public policy who linked stiffer sentencing practices with significant crime reduction.

It’s one thing for academics to not keep an open mind and only give their students one side of the story.

But bureaucrats are literally playing with people’s lives when they selectively choose what data policy makers will have access to.



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

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