Tough on poverty, tough on crime?

Chandra's picture

Earlier this year, Senator Hugh Segal published a great op-ed in the Toronto Star calling for those concerned about crime to get tough on poverty. “Less than 10 per cent of Canadians live beneath the poverty line but almost 100 per cent of our prison inmates come from that 10 per cent. There is no political ideology, on the right or left, that would make the case that people living in poverty belong in jail,” the Senator argued. “To be tough on crime means we must first be tough on the causes of poverty,” he concludes.

Segal argues for a Guaranteed Annual Income, also known as a Guaranteed Livable Income, noting that it would take only $12,000-$20,000 annually to bring a person above the poverty line but we spend $147,000 a year per federal prisoner.

My brother-in-law had a debate with a friend recently about restorative justice versus punitive approaches. His friend objected to the argument that we can reduce costs by addressing causes of crime such as poverty, responding that such an argument is a slap in the face to the poor. He believes drawing a connection between poverty and crime implies that the poor just can’t stop themselves from committing crimes.

We do need to be a bit careful about how we speak about the link between poverty and crime, but it inarguably exists, as Senator Segal notes. What I don’t think that means, however, is that an increased propensity to crime exists among the poor. Rather, there are a number of reasons why our provincial and federal prisons are overwhelmingly filled with poor people rather than reflecting the income distribution of all Canadians.

First, we need to clarify that while most prisoners are poor, most poor people are not criminals. The average number of prisoners in Canada was 36,329 in 2007-2008, but the number of Canadians living in poverty that same year was 3 million. We are talking about a tiny fraction of the poor who end up in jail. Most low income Canadians, while they struggle to maintain their dignity in the face of significant daily challenges and difficult choices, do not resort to crime or illegal activity in response to their situation.

However, among the small percentage of those who do engage in illegal activity, a significant number are driven by desperation to commit economic crimes. For instance, 80% of women prisoners in Canada are guilty of economic crimes such as small scale fraud or theft. While not all economic crimes are motivated by poverty and financial need, many are.

Many crimes are also committed as the result of addictions related to poverty, trauma and abuse. One study found that close to half of serious crimes and nearly two-thirds of less serious crimes were significantly linked to dependence on at least one substance. Addictions can become a way of self-medicating when life becomes hopeless or those with a mental or physical illness are not able to receive quality care and treatment.

But incarceration of the poor is linked not only to poverty-related crimes but also to the criminalization of poverty. For instance, a report from Calgary highlighted the sheer lunacy of a system in which a woman who cannot pay a $2.50 ticket for the C-train can be incarcerated to pay off a $150 fine at the cost of as much as $690 a day to the taxpayer. Since she can “pay” up to $75 of her fine with each day of incarceration, it costs nearly $1400 to collect a $150 fine for a $2.50 unpurchased ticket! And that does not even take into account lost income or job loss and childcare expenses for the incarcerated woman!

Homeless people report many more interactions with police than housed Canadians, with many of the interactions being experienced as negative. In addition to very high rates of arrest and imprisonment, (as noted by Senator Segal), they also experience aggressive ticketing for offences related to homelessness, such as consuming alcohol in public, urinating in public, or sleeping on a park bench. And don’t forget those famous anti-panhandling by-laws that spread across the country in the 1990s.

Additionally, as The Spirit Level documents, the poor are more likely to receive harsh sentences than the wealthy when a country is characterized by high inequality. Unfortunately, Canada is in the camp of highly unequal countries. And as noted above with the example of the fines in Calgary, there are instances where the wealthy are able to avoid jail time and the poor are sent to prison.

So noting that addressing poverty is an important way to reduce crime is not a slap in the face to the poor. But a careful look does suggest that there are multiple ways that we need to address the link between poverty and crime, ranging from reducing and eventually eliminating poverty to rethinking our own attitudes about poverty and the resulting criminalization of being poor.

Chandra Pasma is CPJ's former Public Justice Policy Analyst.

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