Prime Time Crime


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of Apr.  6, 2009)


Gangs aren't going anywhere


  By John Martin

With the body count piling up and shopping plazas turning into shooting ranges, the gang situation in Vancouver and surrounding areas tops the agenda. Much of the media has relegated the economy to second place as the gang phenomenon dominates talk shows and opinion pages. Supposed experts in gangs, organized crime, drugs and violence are having a field day giving interviews. Sadly, the commentary to date has been predictable and falls into three categories: social programs, decriminalization and tougher sentences--each a non-starter.

The least helpful constituency thus far has been the country's criminologists. The problem with criminology is that almost all of its practitioners were exclusively schooled, or specialized, in a narrow sociological stream of study. Few have any expertise or interest in psychological and economic perspectives of crime and are fixated on simplistic, idealistic notions that are best saved for coffee house chatter. Consequently, the criminological consensus is typically one dimensional--social programs. And more social programs.

So, we have the solution of increased social spending to address alienated, homeless, uneducated, disenfranchised, excluded, runaway youth who have been economically marginalized and impoverished by Gordon Campbell and Stephen Harper. I'm not quite sure how this explains the Bacon brothers, who live in a nice home in a trendy subdivision with mom, the financial institution worker and dad, the school district employee. But rest assured, this is the stock response to every social ill that will get a criminology student a pass on the final exam every time.

And of course, the decriminalization advocates insist that almost all local gang and organized crime activity is directly or indirectly tied to the marijuana trade and all that's needed is some system of legalization and regulation to put the gangs out of business. They're quite correct. Gangs have grown proportionately to the booming bud industry.

The problem with decriminalization though, is "it ain't gonna happen."

Maybe it should. But it's not in the realm of the possible. Those advocating this route are pretty well in the same boat as the crew wanting a return to capital punishment. The political cost, coupled with our physical and economic proximity to the U.S., completely rules it out. The only chance is if Mexico throws in the towel and makes the move first. That would open up an ever so slim window of opportunity.

Until then you'd be better off bankrolling Stephan Dion's leadership comeback.

The other popular response is something in between mandatory minimum sentences and "lock 'em up and throw away the key." Had we brought in such legislation 15 years ago and backed it with dedicated enforcement, we wouldn't be in the situation we're in today. The grow-op business would have been too high-risk with too many downsides.

If the consequences for getting busted for growing dope were the same in 1993 as they were for driving a truckload of it across the border, we never would have reached this point.

But that ship has sailed. Bringing in those types of laws and sentences now would have minimal impact. Tougher sentences would help put some bad people behind bars for a long, long time. But organized crime and gangs would persevere. They're much too entrenched to be removed or cut down now. Not to sound overly defeatist--but it's too late. Nothing we do at this point is going to have a significant impact on the number of gangs or their practices. Unless we declare martial law, the best we can do is contain the situation and hamper further growth.

The warnings and concerned voices of those who foresaw this 15 years ago, and they were many, were ignored by legislators who were fully briefed on the ramifications of a non-response.

A healthy chunk of the outrage we see regarding gunfire in the streets must be reserved for those who allowed us to reach this state.

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


Prime Time Crime

Contributing 2009