Tough on crime is tough on people

In 2009, Toronto resident Leroy Smickle was caught in his cousin’s apartment posing for a selfie with a loaded gun when police coincidentally raided the home. Stupidity aside, Smickle had no criminal record, and the gun belonged to someone else in the house.

Based on mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for possession of a loaded firearm, Smickle should have automatically received three years in prison. But when his case finally went to trial in 2012, the judge sentenced him to a one-year conditional term.

Despite a later appeal by the federal government, the court did not sentence Smickle to further time. Its decision read in part, “[Smickle] works two jobs, is developing his own business, has a stable loving relationship with his fiancée, and a close relationship with his two children from earlier relationships. He supports both children financially…. The community is best protected if the respondent continues along the rehabilitative path that he has followed in the five years that he has been before the court.”

In effect, the courts ruled that mandatory minimum sentences are constitutionally unjust and do not allow judges to take into account the specific circumstances and situation of each individual who comes before them.

Leroy Smickle’s story, and the decision of the judge to blatantly disregard government-mandated sentencing, highlights just one of many issues around the “tough on crime” approach to justice.

Beginning in 2008, Canada’s Conservative government began to impose mandatory minimum sentences for a variety of crimes. These sentences are part of a broader attempt by prime minister Stephen Harper’s government to be “tough on crime” for the sake of public safety. As Harper said in January 2013, “When it comes to keeping our streets and our communities safe, we will not rest for there is much more work to be done.”

Of course, addressing crime and harm in our communities so that we feel safe in our homes and our neighbourhoods is a worthy goal. Who doesn’t want to address crime?  But is being “tough-on-crime”‘ really the best path to community well-being and to seeing justice done? And for those of us who identify as Christians, we need to ask other important questions. Does a tough-on-crime approach get us any closer to the vision of a world where all of us have a chance to flourish? Can we say “yes” to both a tough-on-crime agenda and to the good news of Jesus?

In our work with marginalized communities who are entrenched in the justice system, we’ve come to know the humanity behind the “convict” label.

Tim is someone we know and work with who committed a violent crime almost 30 years ago to feed the drug habits of manipulative friends. He has spent most of his adult life in jail on a life sentence, and is now making a slow journey to life on the outside. He finds joy in playing guitar and writing music. He spends his time in prison doing community service at a local organization, and worrying about how to pay for his smoking habit, and whether or not his hockey team will make the playoffs this season (odds are low).

As Tim prepares for parole, the reality is that the prison system he has been a part of for most of his existence has done little to equip him for life on the outside. “Tough-on-crime” has been tough on Tim, and he now leaves prison wide-eyed, hands shaking.

And we wonder why two-thirds of those released end up back in prison.

The tough-on-crime approach has included a number of recent developments: legislation that makes pardons more difficult for former inmates; mandatory minimum sentences which limit a judge’s ability to sentence creatively; expanding federal prisons (at a time when other Western countries are shutting them down for lack of need); taking away opportunities in prisons such as job training or access to arts and culture; and cutting funding for a variety of reintegration support programs for former inmates.

Some of these developments initially sound good. Who doesn’t want safer streets? Who doesn’t value accountability and responsibility? But a closer look at these issues puts a permanent question mark over the tough-on-crime agenda.

For instance, for many small-scale crimes, offenders must pay a “victim surcharge”‘ — a small fee that encourages accountability and helps fund programs and services for victims of crime. Judges have traditionally had the ability to waive this fee, or lessen it, for unique circumstances.

So, if a youth struggling with addiction went on a shoplifting spree at 10 stores in a mall, a judge could waive the fee and instead sentence the offender to spend time in a rehab program. New legislation has made that much more difficult; now, this same youth would likely be charged a fine for each theft. Unable to afford the fines, he would probably end up at the local jail to pay off the debt. City jails are hardly the place to heal from addictions and work toward a crime-free life.

And, under the new legislation, pardons have also become more expensive and more elusive. As a result, former offenders who have lived crime-free for 20, 30, or even 40 years have difficulty clearing their records. This creates one more barrier to getting a job or finding a new apartment.

These laws are intended to make us feel safer by letting employers or landlords know with whom they are doing business; but instead, they have the unintended consequence of isolating former inmates, making their journey to healing even more difficult than it already is.

Though the federal government enacted this legislation to address crime and keep our streets and communities safe, the truth is that crime rates were falling long before the “tough-on-crime” approach began. Other countries that have tried this framework, the United States being the most well-known example, have actually seen a rise in crime.  Ultimately, our communities do not become safer or healthier; we lose the potential of all of those would-be community members, who sit in our jails for longer or more often than necessary.

Not only that, but “tough-on-crime” is an expensive experiment. It costs around $120,000 a year to incarcerate a man in Canada for a year, and over $200,000 for a woman. Yet despite all of this money to address crime and criminal behaviour, almost two-thirds of released offenders still end up back in prison at some point after their release.

Perhaps it is time to be smart on crime, rather than tough on crime.

For Christians, being smart on crime means asking if our approach to justice makes gospel-sense.

At the heart of historic Christian prison reform movements lies the conviction that in Jesus, God has given us a second chance. We are therefore obligated to extend that second chance to others, often in very real-world, practical ways.

A community of second-chance people should be skeptical about any criminal justice system that denies genuine opportunities for second chances to offenders: whether through limiting pardons, cutting reintegration supports, or cultivating unnecessary fear about released inmates in our communities.

Christians are also concerned about justice. This concern, at least on the surface, is something we hold in common with advocates of a tough-on-crime agenda. We all want justice to be served. But Christians steeped in the visions and dreams of the biblical prophets, psalm-writers, law-makers, and Jesus Himself are committed to a different vision of justice than the one on offer from the tough-on-crime folks.

Put simply, a Christian vision of justice is about creating space for all to flourish. That means the “widows, orphans, aliens, and strangers,” as the prophets put it; we might add inmates, refugees, and those without homes to the list.

The biblical symbol for justice isn’t a scale, a sword, or a blindfold — all ancient symbols for a modern justice system that values fairness, order, and consequence above all else. For the ancient prophet Amos, justice looks something like a wild river — a dynamic process that gives life to all in its path; for Isaiah, justice is valleys being raised and mountains being made low, levelling the plains so that everyone has a chance to fulfill their God-given potential.

That vision of justice will only happen when our legislators, police, and prisons have the freedom to focus on rehabilitation and restoration, while also addressing root causes like poverty and oppression.

Think again of Leroy Smickle’s situation. In Smickle’s case — a non-violent, unprecedented error in judgement — would a three-year mandatory minimum sentence have fit this biblical idea of justice? Would it have contributed to personal and societal flourishing? We can pretty safely say no. It would only have served to strain his relationships with his fiancée and children, and temporarily sever his growing connections with and contributions to his community.

When it comes to issues of crime and punishment, a Christian vision of justice insists that justice is finally served only when broken relationships have been healed and communities have been made whole.

Crime, is above all, a relationship that has been severed. That relationship may be neighbour-to-neighbour, mother to son, or individual to community. In any case, any attempt to do justice must seek to rebuild that relationship in real and practical ways: making restitution, giving back through service, addressing causes like addiction or mental health, and being honest about the many ways that victims have been hurt.

Justice is not simply done when a punishment has been meted out or time has been served; justice is done when a community can find a “new normal” after a crime has disrupted their lives. Humans can only flourish in relationship to others; a just society will prize relational wholeness over an inflated sense of safety through harsher punishment.

Of course, to view justice as space for flourishing means that we are invited to look at the big picture. What is the context that led to a crime being committed and a victim being hurt? And what has to happen for a community or a person to be made whole again? To answer these questions, we have to be willing to take the stories behind crimes seriously.

A tough-on-crime approach has a hard time getting past the particular incident of the crime. Both the offender and the victim are defined almost entirely in relation to that one point in time. We need to have the courage to look at things differently — looking at an offender’s past and see it for all its beauty and its pain. We can see the addictions or poverty or family brokenness that may have contributed to a crime, and we can see the many gifts that a person has that can lead to a new future.

We should have the courage to resist the voices of media or government that define someone by the worst decision they’ve ever made. What if we had the power to look at difficult people or messy situations with redemptive eyes. Perhaps then we can respond to crimes appropriately, and give our legal system the freedom to do the same.

Of course, there is one final Christian conviction that resists the tough-on-crime agenda, and especially its tendency to demonize those who are behind bars. It’s the basic confession that all of us are created in the image of God. To treat an image-bearer with anything less than basic human dignity — much less love — is an affront to the Christian faith. Enter many prisons in Canada, and it becomes clear that our justice system does not view most offenders as equally human to those of us on the outside.

Confessing that we are all made in God’s image can compel us to welcome those leaving prison as potential friends and neighbours, and not merely as dangerous folk to be avoided.

In Paul’s letter to Philemon, the apostle encourages a wealthy community leader Philemon to welcome back a runaway servant, Onesimus. Onesimus was, by the logic and law of the day, a criminal, deserving of time in jail and separation from the community. But Paul insisted that Philemon use a different logic — a kingdom logic. He invited Philemon to welcome Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but as a brother,” just as Jesus asks us to do, in the face of those we meet in prison (and everywhere else).

Many people we’ve come to know who have served time have been victims themselves, and many have dealt with serious issues of mental health, poverty, substance-abuse, or historic injustice like the Indian Residential School system. Some of them are still violent, still committing crimes, still in need of a justice system that provides accountability as well as compassion.

Clearly the end game of “tough-on-crime” is not the same kind of community well-being envisioned by the gospel. Tough on crime is short on redemption, restoration, and grace. This should be reason enough for Christians to advocate for changes to our justice system so that justice can truly roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Originally published in Issue 20 of Converge Magazine.

Photo (Flickr CC) by Cindy Higby