21st Century Justice: The Economics of Public Safety

Every day, most of us make certain assumptions. We assume that we are generally safe in our homes and on our streets. We assume that the government services that we rely upon will continue unimpaired. We assume that our lot, as individuals and as a community, will improve over time. We don’t expect a collapse of our economic or political systems.

If we didn’t harbour certain assumptions, we wouldn’t have time to take care of the day-to-day business of living. Yet, hovering around us is a cloud of headlines that should cause us to rethink our basic expectations.

For the last four years, the world’s economy has experienced a multi-dimensional crisis. Massive American long-term debt, bankrupt state and local governments, a Eurozone threatening to unravel – these are just a few of the factors that force a rethinking of some of our assumptions.

Most Canadians have been fortunate to have suffered less than the citizens of some other developed countries. But we are not immune to financial ill-health and its impact on the quality of our lives. We have an aging population, one that will place increasing demands on the country’s health care system and other ‘entitlements’, and we can look forward to intense competition between ministries and agencies for funds to keep operating, let alone expanding.

Looking outside our own borders, we can see examples of the impact of financial hardship on criminal justice and public safety. In England and Wales, a reduction of more than 20,000 police is in progress. Many American jurisdictions have already undergone significant downsizing in police services, driven by shrinking tax bases. In the field of corrections, The United States Supreme Court has ordered California to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates, in direct response to overcrowding.

In this country, Chief Justice McLachlin has spoken out about high legal fees as an insurmountable obstacle, for those without the means, to justice. In British Columbia, legal aid lawyers have, on occasion, withdrawn services to emphasize the inadequacy of that system’s budget. Unavailability of Sheriffs has in some instances caused unscheduled court closures. Bill C-10’s financial impact is debated endlessly, and the cost of RCMP policing services is driving active consideration of municipally-based alternatives.

Our crises don’t seem to have the blunt effect of those in the U.S. and elsewhere. We have the advantage of time to think about alternatives and options before we are forced to confront British or American-style consequences.

To give focus to the discussion of our options, the planners of the 2013 Canadian Congress on Criminal Justice has determined that the theme for next year’s event  (October 2-5 in Vancouver) will be 21st Century Justice:  The Economics of Public Safety.  The 2013 Congress is a joint undertaking of the Canadian Criminal Justice Association (www.ccja-acjp.ca) and the British Columbia Criminal Justice Association (www.bccja.com), and next year’s event will be the 34th of these biennial gatherings.

Recently a Call for Papers to be presented at the Congress was published on the CCJA’s website, and in its quarterly magazine, Justice Report. The Call for Papers creates an opportunity to contribute directly to conversation about justice reform, a reform movement that will increasingly be pushed along by the need to find affordable and sustainable alternatives.

Pierre Trudeau talked, more than 40 years ago, about Canada as a “Just Society”. If we truly aspire to create and sustain a country that can claim to be a just society, we need to think long and hard about the shape of our justice system, its effective and efficient functioning, and our ability to sustain and improve public safety. It is time to check our assumptions.

Glenn Angus

About Glenn Angus

After serving 30 years with BC Corrections, Glenn Angus retired as Regional Director of Corrections in Vancouver in 2002. A member of the Board of Directors of the BC Criminal Justice Association for much of the past twenty years, he is currently Chair of the Program Committee, 2013 Canadian Congress on Criminal Justice.

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