Back to top

ATAMANENKO: The U.S. Right on crime campaign

Two prominent US Republicans, Newt Gingrich (former Speaker of the House) and Pat Nolan, (former Republican Leader of the California State Assembly) are saying that the American style “tough on crime” approach is not working. 


They, along with other US Conservative leaders are spearheading the Right on Crime Campaign, a national movement urging states to make sensible and proven reforms to the criminal justice system by cutting prison costs and keeping the public safe.

The US spent $68 Billion in 2010 on corrections, 300 percent more than 25 years ago.  Their prison population, with the highest incarceration rate in the world, is growing 13 times faster than the general population.  But, according to their Bureau of Justice Statistics, half of the prisoners released this year are expected to be back in prison within three years.

According to Gingrich and Nolan, “If our prison policies are failing half of the time and we know that there are more humane and effective alternatives, it is time to fundamentally rethink how we treat and rehabilitate our prisoners.  The criminal justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it”.

This is the sad part, in Canada, we do have a more humane and effective alternative and yet, Prime Minister Harper is rapidly moving to the US style prison system that is not working.  In Canada the crime rate is going down and yet, we are spending billions to build more prisons.  In the US they have realized that this approach is not working and are saving billions by adopting an approach that has been working in Canada, i.e. parole, prevention, drug treatment and half-way houses.  Instead of learning from the American experience, Canada is following their mistakes.  This absolutely does not make any sense!

In Texas, a so-called “tough on crime” state, Republicans and Democrats adopted incentive-based funding to strengthen the state’s probation system in 2005.  In 2007, they decided against building more prisons and instead opted to enhance proven community corrections approaches such as drug courts.  These reforms will save $2 Billion over the next five years.  In Texas, the prison population has been reduced, money has been redirected into community treatment for mentally ill and low level drug addicts and crime has dropped by 10%, the lowest rate since 1973.

Reforms in South Carolina will see that costly prison beds will be reserved for dangerous criminals while low-risk offenders will be dealt with through lower-cost community supervision.  The state is expected to save $175 Million in prison construction this year and $60 Million in operating costs over the next several years.

Gingrich and Nolan compare Florida and the State of New York.  “Over the past seven years, Florida’s incarceration rate has increased 16%, while New York’s decresed 16%.  Yet, the crime rate in New York has fallen twice as much as Florida’s.  Put another way, although New York spent less on its prisons, it delivered better public safety.   Americans need to know that we can reform our prison systems to cost less and keep the public safe.  We hope conservative leaders across the country will join with us in getting it right on crime”.

There you have it; American conservatives want to reform their system by giving prisoners a better chance to re-integrate into society.  They realize that their “tough on crime” approach has not worked.

In Canada, the Conservatives, instead of learning from the American failure, are pushing to increase the prison population and build more unnecessary costly prisons. 

I believe it is time for Canadians to take charge and stop letting the Harper government push us in the wrong direction.

Alex Atamanenko is the MP for BC Southern Interior.