Fighting crime through social services

Another piece for the “ounce of prevention” file. Poverty, homelessness and crime in BC have gotten bad enough that business leaders are starting to call for action. Thus far, the call has been more cosmetic, as in “get these bums out of my doorway” and “panhandlers are bad for tourism”, but it is a start, I suppose. Now the Premier’s BC Progress Board, composed of business leaders, comes out and connects concerns about crime back to some root causes: addictions, mental health and failed child protection.

Unfortunately, even with business voices getting louder on the issue, adding to a growing grassroots lobby for action on poverty, the provincial government has done almost nothing. Even with the Olympics coming in a few short years, and with coffers overflowing, these issues get but a shrug of the shoulders.

Here’s Paul Willcocks with a look at the Progress Board’s surprisingly enlightened approach:

Catching criminals before they steal your car

What if instead of waiting for people to commit crimes, you identified and stopped them before they broke into your house or grabbed your mom’s purse?

… Instead of focusing on hiring more police and building more jails to house more criminals – an approach that hasn’t worked all that well so far – the Progress Board report says we should work harder at keeping people from committing crimes.

… The report says we know what turns people into criminals. Or at least we know about the people who commit 90 per cent of the crimes. There are still the crimes of calculation, blind anger or – based on my brief stint as a court reporter – the extraordinarily rare and scary people who are just evil.

But mostly we can look out into our communities and know who will be committing crimes in a few years. Which means we can stop them, or at least a lot of them. The report from the Progress Board, a hard-headed, business-dominated group, recommends that approach.

The major cause of criminal activity – no surprise – is drug and alcohol use, the report notes. People steal to pay for both. Both make them stupid and unable to see the consequences of their crimes. Users are angrier, more violent. Suppliers – except for the Liquor Distribution Branch – commit crimes to protect their businesses.

About four out of five federal penitentiary inmates are substance abusers, the report found. Deal with that problem and crime plummets. But, the report found, we aren’t doing well. We talk about the four-pillar approach – prevention, harm reduction, treatment and enforcement. But treatment isn’t available across most of the province and there’s no help to keep people sober. The report says the problem is especially serious outside the Lower Mainland.

Much more needs to be done, the report says: “Most of all there needs to be some action.” It’s not just drugs. The report identifies a second – equally unsurprising – cause of crime. That guy shoplifting today was a neglected or poorly parented four-year-old in 1995. Give kids some help and a fair chance and they’ll do OK, the report says.

But we haven’t given many kids a chance. “Clearly, existing health and social services that address childhood development issues are not adequate at this time,” the board reports. Little kids need help; they don’t get it.

Then there are … the mentally ill. Hospitalization is rare now. But there’s not enough community support either. So people with mental illness end up in jail. The justice system has a “revolving door” just for them, the report says.

The Progress Board identifies another potential crime group that includes people from all of the first three categories. People living “impoverished and chaotic lifestyles” are prone to crime, the report notes. These are incredibly difficult people. Think of the hardcore streetpeople you see. But the board’s report says making an effort to deal with their problems and “colossal unmet needs” would pay off in reduced crime.

All these people have something in common besides a propensity for crime. They also aren’t going to be deterred by more enforcement or tougher penalties. A mentally ill addict with fetal alcohol disorder doesn’t calculate the odds of getting caught and punished. She leaps.

Just imagine, stopping crimes before they happen. All we have to do is try.

Footnote: The report offers three options for dealing with the drug trade: Legalize, or if that’s not possible or practical, then spend a great deal on a serious 10-year effort to wipe out the trade. Or, the report suggests, launch the attack with legalization to follow. The board makes no recommendation on which course the government should choose.

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