Prime Time Crime  


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of April  9, 2007)

Time for Criminal Justice to get back to basics


  By John Martin

While there is considerable controversy about Canada’s criminal justice system, one thing is beyond debate.  The system has clearly failed in one of its primary mandates; it doesn’t deter.

There are several explanations for this shortcoming.  But there’s one over riding reason for the system’s failure to deter; we’ve moved away from the philosophical underpinnings that once defined the nature of crime and punishment in a civilized society.

Most modern day systems of criminal justice can be traced to the 17th century philosopher, Cesare Becarria.  His writings on crime and punishment were revolutionary and ushered in an approach to justice that was both rational and practical.

According to Becarria, punishment should embrace two purposes.  It should discourage the offender from committing another crime, and it should serve as a deterrent to the rest of society to avoid similar behavior.

And in order to fulfill these goals, punishment has to take on certain characteristics.

It has to be severe.  Not cruel or overly severe, but severe enough to outweigh any actual or potential gain an offender stands to acquire.  This might help explain why when someone growing dope gets a 2000-dollar fine and their light bulbs confiscated, they’re smiling and back in business the next day.  This is hardly rocket science but it’s apparently beyond the grasp of most judges.

To deter offenders and would-be offenders, punishment also has to be certain.  The offender must be punished and the punishment must be consistent and known in advance.  In Becarria’s world, there would be no doubt that a specific punishment will be imposed.  We’ve moved about as far away from this concept as possible with suspended and conditional sentences, house arrest, and the wide breadth of discretion we give sentencing judges.  So someone stealing cars might get anywhere from 30 days to 30 months, they might get probation, they might receive house arrest or they might get a warning.  And of course, there’s a good chance they’ll never actually be prosecuted at all.

Becarria also stipulated a requirement that punishment be carried out as swiftly as possible to maximize the psychological consequences of cause and effect.  It does little good to punish someone for a break and enter they did eighteen months ago.  Meanwhile, the offender has probably burglarized dozens of other homes in the interim. 

It would seem our system functions without any understanding of human behavior.  Almost any parent (or pet owner for that matter) has a better grasp of basic psychology when seeking to motivate or discourage certain behaviors than is exhibited in our criminal courts.  People with thirty or more convictions are treated much the same as a first time offender.  There is absolutely no rhyme or reason to the sentences typically handed down.  They have no capacity to deter.  Nor do they provide any incentive for an offender to address his criminogenic values and behaviors.

The soft on crime crew and all the other appeasers and apologists may think they’re being compassionate and progressive by continually turning criminals back on the streets to carry on their personal crime waves.  But it’s difficult to see how we’re doing them, or the rest of us, any favors by facilitating and maintaining this absurd revolving door.

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

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