Monday, 8 December 2014

Lies... Damn Lies! And Statistics! Justice System Edition

Note: This is the first in a series exploring how Stephen Harper and the CPC manipulate or outright ignore facts and scientific evidence in their policy approach.

Despite the rates of all sort of crime going down in Canada, the Harper Government, in their great wisdom, have decided we need more prisons. Now, I realize this make no intuitive sense. If crime is going down, surely we may be looking at fewer prisons, right? Not so, said Stockwell Day. No, he said, we need more and bigger prisons because of an alarming increase in unreported crime.

Unreported crime... Next they'll be saying we need more animal control officers to round up all the unreported unicorns.

According to the CBC, "Statistics Canada says the country's homicide rate fell last year to 1.44 victims for every 100,000 people, its lowest level since 1966." 1966! The lowest homicide rate in 48 years! But we still need more and bigger prisons. This is because Canada's prison population is at an all-time high. Let's get our minds around this now... The crime rate is falling steadily, and we are putting more people in prison? Is the crime rate falling because most of the criminals are now in jail? That might be a simple way to look at it. But, as with many things, the simple answer is not the correct one.

The Canadian population, as a whole, is getting older. We're just not getting into mischief like we used to. So, why so many people in prison?

Let's look at the Harper Government's stance on justice and prisons. Harper is really, REALLY into punishment. He has no time or patience for ideas like prevention, harm reduction, rehabilitation.. His world is black and white - there are those who are good and do what they are told, and there are the others who are clearly morally inferior and need to be punished. And grinding other people down does give some people a sort of ego-boost, it makes them feel powerful and in control.

So, Harper has decided to follow the Bush-era US model of "justice".  The United States accounts for a mere 4.43% of the world's total population. Yet they also have a full 25% of the world's incarcerated population. One in 39 Americans is now either behind bars, on parole, or on probation. If you believe that being "tough on crime" and locking people up for longer and longer makes the streets safer, then by this reasoning, downtown areas of American cities should be about the safest places on earth, right? Are they? No. They are not. In fact, they are becoming increasingly dangerous places.

Private prisons became a thing in the US, with some prison corporations gaining the contractual right to sue a state if the population of inmates was not maintained. This article explains how that works. More laws, longer and stiffer penalties help to keep prison populations up to the required 80%-100% occupancy. What does this mean for people?

When a person is arrested and charged, the state is highly motivated to convict them and make sure they receive the longest prison time possible. If you are poor and can't afford a lawyer, you are pretty much sure to be convicted, regardless of your innocence. If you are a person of colour, your chances of being found guilty are substantially increased as well.

For-profit prisons follow the business model of reducing costs to increase profit. This means the insides of prisons are generally bleak, over-crowded and highly regulated. Food is sufficient to sustain life. Education, rehabilitation and mental health programs are expensive, and so are minimized or eliminated. Staff is kept at a bare minimum, which results in a lot of time in "lock-down" where prisoners are confined to their cells because they are more manageable that way. Apart from being dismal, depressing and depersonalizing, prisons can often be highly dangerous. Despite the danger of the situation, suicide is the leading cause of death in prison in many states in the US.

Eventually, if you survive, they have to let you out. What then? You have served your time. Do you get to start over? Not so fast. Most employers will not hire ex-cons. In the US, if you are convicted of a felony (and the meaning of the term felony varies from state to state and can result in sentences ranging from 5 days to death), you are no longer able to vote, ever. So, you can't get a job, you can't vote. You become marginalized. Some do find work with benevolent employers, but many wind up on the streets. Their underlying issues that got them into trouble in the first place have not been addressed, and now they are even more disadvantaged than before. Does this sound like a way to reduce crime?

"Even if the rate of crime were trending upward, building more prisons would not suppress the crime rate, said Craig Jones, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada.

“To suppress the rate of crime, you have to frontload your welfare system so all your children have adequate nutrition, they live in non-violent, non-traumatizing environments — because that’s where your violence originates,” Jones said." in an article in the Toronto Star.

So, the US has begun to roll back its "tough on crime" policies. They are recognizing they DO NOT WORK to either reduce crime, or to make communities safer or society better. Texas, for goodness sake, is changing its justice system, because "tough on crime" doesn't work.

"(Chuck) DeVore (a former California Republican Assembly member and conservative candidate for the U.S. Senate) testified that Texas is closing prisons, reducing its prison population and saving millions of taxpayer dollars - and its crime rate is going down.
How is this happening? Texas is investing in alternatives to incarceration that are proving to be cheaper and more effective at keeping people out of prison. It is also doing a better job of rehabilitating people to keep them from reoffending and ending up back in prison.
Texas uses risk-assessment and better probation procedures to divert large numbers of nonviolent offenders away from the prison system, keeping them away from hard-core criminals. It requires strict implementation of victim-restitution measures, while offering alternatives to prison such as civil sanctions, drug courts and drug-abuse and mental health treatment. It also offers rehabilitation programs like job training for those in prison to prepare them to re-enter society. And Texas has invested heavily in reducing the caseloads of parole and probation officers so the state can keep better track of the people it supervises and help them move in a new direction.
It's paying off. Texas has closed three state prisons, and almost two-thirds of Texas parolees are employed." See the full article here.

Other countries have long employed more successful models of justice and rehabilitation. Norway and Sweden are striking examples. In Norway, the recidivism rate is below 20%. Compare that with over 50% in much of Europe and the US. How do they do that?

They treat prisoners with respect and work to address the problems that resulted in their crimes. They have the philosophy (which, incidentally is also in place in Canadian law) that prison is supposed to be seen as a last resort and should be used as little as possible for the shortest time necessary. In light of this, mandatory minimums in Canada may well be in contravention of our Criminal Code unless Harper has stricken this underlying concept from the books in one of the many omnibus bills. As well,  they operate on the principle that prisoners continue to have human rights and are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. In other words, the loss of freedom is the punishment. Loss of freedom, not loss of human dignity, not threats to personal security, not being subjected to abuse, not brutality, poor living conditions, poor food... Loss of freedom. Period. Please see related articles herehere, and here. There is also a heavy emphasis on alternatives to jail: fines, community service, etc. that keep a lot of people out of jail in the first place. Backed up with social supports such as educational programs, drug addiction rehabilitation, mental health care and so on, Scandinavian countries keep their incarcerated population percentage at a scant fraction of that in the US.

Apart from the glee some feel in inflicting revenge on others, there is little good to be served by producing a prison system based on misery and suffering. This study, produced by the Pell Centre for International Relations and Public Policy, examines the benefits of a Nordic model of justice. In comparing the Scandinavian and American systems, the authors point out the extreme costs to a society, both in the actual cost of maintaining prisoners and also in the costs of broken families, future re-offenses, and a population that emerges from the corrections system in worse shape than when it went in, as is generally the case in a punitive-style system. 

Comparing the two:

There are so many studies that demonstrate empirically that this Scandinavian humanist model is far superior to the US-style punitive model... Even the US has begun to dismantle its more extreme laws and practices. It costs far less and results in lower re-offence, lower crime rates, lower damage to society as a whole...  And yet, Harper is dead set on furthering his strategy of costly punitive "tough on crime" legislation. 

The CPC introduced Bill C-10, whimsically named the "Safe Streets and Communities Act", which imposes harsher penalties, reduces alternative remedies, makes it harder to get parole or a pardon, and extends adult-sized sentences to youth offenders. What all these things do, as the studies have shown, is the exact opposite of making streets and communities safer. This approach reduces offenders to forever being the worst thing they have ever done. They have to wear it, like a scarlet letter, the rest of their lives.

Harper snubs his nose at science and empirical evidence and goes for the far more satisfying retribution and suffering approach. "An eye for an eye" is barbaric and Old Testament. This is 2014. We call ourselves civilized. And yet, there are sufficient among Harper's base of support who will be chuffed to think of all those "thugs" suffering, languishing, maybe even being abused during their long, long stay in prison, that this makes sense to the PM.

Should not the aim of a justice and corrections system be to improve people so they function well in society? All the indicators suggest that a humanist, supportive approach is the most effective and least costly way to do this. Our government's steadfast march in the opposite direction makes no objective, factually supportable or rational sense. 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Newspeak: A Harper Government Lexicon

"‘When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'
‘The question is,' said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things."
‘The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that's all.'"
- "Through the Looking Glass", Lewis Carrol

Just like Humpty Dumpty, and the Big Brother Government in 1984, Stephen Harper and those who read his PMO talking points attempt to change our understanding and use of language. Stephen Harper is certainly not the first leader in world history to work to change the meaning of language to suit his own ends. But he is the first to do so in Canada so intensively, and backed by such a legion of psychology-based spin doctors and communications specialists, as well as several thousand paid trolls whose role it is to attack, disrupt and change the conversation on social media anywhere criticism of the government might be found. So, as a handy guide, I provide you with a partial glossary of CPC Newspeak, so that you might be prepared to engage your critical thinking when these terms come up.

CLEAR/CLEARLY: This is one of Harper's favourites. "Let me be clear" or "Clearly...." The party ran on a platform of transparency and accountability in 2006.

However, when Stephen Harper says, "clear" or "clearly", he is not prefacing transparency. It means he is about to either a) say something so convoluted it is impossible to follow, but sounds good, or b) he is going to make up something, such as , "Let me be clear, this government is first among G7 countries in job creation (or environmental responsibility, or whatever).

FAIR (as in "Fair Elections Act" or "Fair Taxation for Families"): When I think of the concept of fairness, I think of something that levels the playing field in some way. Something that makes it possible for those with fewer advantages, to compete with those who have more advantages. The dictionary defines fair as:

By the traditional definition of "fair", a fair elections act should make elections potentially winnable by any party without systemic barriers to any, and should make all potential voters equally able to vote. However, by the CPC definition of "fair", a fair election is one in which they have a marked advantage over any other party and those voters least likely to vote for them may encounter barriers preventing them from exercising their franchise. This is a page straight out of the American Tea Party playbook. In recent years, the far right in the US has appeared to be working hard to devolve their democracy back to an age where only white men with property could vote.

What the CPC have done is change electoral ridings, splitting hard-core CPC support ridings in two to add seats to their side of the house. They have opened the doors to increased campaign spending, knowing full well they are the only party with enough money to take full advantage of this, and they have brought in new ID requirements for voters which may not be accessible to all eligible voters, particularly the young, the poor, First Nations... groups that typically would not vote CPC.

Throw in changes to the powers of Elections Canada, or rather, removal of powers from Elections Canada, which makes it harder to get people out to vote, prohibits the teaching of school children about elections, and makes it impossible for EC to investigate suspected election fraud, and the CPC seem to have stitched up the next and every subsequent election in their favour. This is clearly a new meaning of "fair".

By the same token, a fair taxation program for families should set tax benefits to allow less affluent parents to provide their children with advantages similar to those available to more affluent parents. Sounds good, right? But, under the CPC definition of fair, it means something quite different. Their fair taxation for families plan will only benefit the top 15% of Canadian families who also adhere to the 1950s value set of staying together and having one parent (usually Mom) stay home with the kids. Nothing for single parents. Nothing for two-income families where both parents make a similar amount. Nothing for those who are struggling. The income-splitting plan is a reward to families like Harper's. No one else. Only in the CPC dictionary is that "fair".


According to Wikipedia:

A Special Interest Group (SIG) is a community within a larger organization with a shared interest in advancing a specific area of knowledge, learning or technology where members cooperate to affect or to produce solutions within their particular field, and may communicate, meet, and organize conferences. The term originated on CompuServe, an early online service provider, where SIGs were a section of the service devoted to particular interests.

And yet, in the Harper lexicon and increasingly in common use, a special interest group is an obstructionist entity whose motives are deeply suspect. In the past, corporations or industry associations would send "lobbyists" to Ottawa. These lobbyists would try to get the ear of a Minister and influence government policy-making in ways that would benefit their company or industry. Under Harper, corporate groups are now "partners",  as in, "The Alberta Department of Education is now partnering with the oil and gas industry to develop curricula for K-12 schools in the province". (Yes, it's true). On the other hand, groups of concerned citizens, such as First Nations bands who do not want a pipeline or a mine on their land, or Veterans who want better access to care, are now "Special Interest Groups". They are linked with the spectre of "foreign funding", radicalism, and possibly terrorism. Never mind that much of the oil and gas industry is foreign-owned or funded, Conservative think-tanks like the Fraser Institute receive vast donations from the likes of the Koch brothers from the US... No, according to Harper, the real threat to our country is citizens trying to protect their land and their rights. Something is very wrong with this. Citizens are not "special interest groups", they are people trying to live in the country with the advantages of clean air, water, environment, safe roads, good schools, and good governance.


 Now we all think we know what facts are, right? Just to be sure we are starting at the same point, facts are defined as:


So a fact is something real, true, indisputable. Facts are used to justify or validate a position. Increasingly, however, we see Harper and his party spokespeople professing "facts" that are completely disputable. Many are difficult for the average citizen to check. "The fact is, Canada has the most stringent rail safety regulations in the world." Unless you are a rail safety expert or have a great deal of time and fluency in many languages, you are not going to be able to verify this. Other "facts" are less obscure. One can google reports from outside Canada to see where Canada stands in comparison with other G7 or OECD countries on many criteria. And when one does this, one finds that the "facts" so assertively stated by the CPC are simply not accurate. Does Canada have the strongest post-recession jobs recovery in the G7? No.Check the story here: Fact-Checking Jobs Numbers   Is Canada the best-performing economy and the envy of the world? No, not really. See an analysis here.

To cut to the chase, here is Canada's ranking adjusted for the essential factor of population growth (often ignored in Harper government calculations):

So, what does "fact" mean to the Conservative Party of Canada? A clue might be found in this 2011 ad from Craigslist seeking professional CPC-oriented trolls to disrupt progressive discussions in social media:

"Ideally you can find or make up facts and statistics to stir controversy." 

"Make up facts and statistics" Let that sink in for a moment. 

If a "fact" is made up, how can it be a "fact"? 

If you follow this line of thinking through to it's logical conclusion... If our government feels facts are whatever plausible statement that is advantageous to say at the moment, then what are they basing their policy decisions on? If facts are irrelevant (evidenced by the elimination of the long-form census, the suppression of scientists and the refusal to accept expert testimony and empirical evidence), then is our country being governed based on whatever Harper wants to do? Whatever whim pops into his head?


Closely related to facts, evidence, and empirical knowledge, is the concept of academic or intellectual expertise. At one time, people respected those who had worked hard to learn all they could about a subject, conducted research, experimentation, engaged in debate with other experts in order to further a field of study. There is both a vilifying of academics (used by Harper to discredit Michael Ignatieff, for example), and a perceived leveling of  the knowledge base. The attitude that "My ignorance is as good as your expertise" may make the average person feel comfortable talking about issues like climate change and the economy, and it is important that we all have those discussions, but it becomes dangerous when it has real world implications. For example, the In-Site Safe Injection Program in Vancouver has been shown in longitudinal studies to reduce harm, save lives and help otherwise hopeless people access services that lead to improvement in their lives. The CPC have been trying very hard to shut them down because they don't agree with the program. It offends them to help people with addictions, rather than punishing them by throwing them in jail. So, on the one hand we have evidence-based facts, and on the other hand, we have dogma and opinion. The right-wing view does not believe in harm-reduction, or, generally, science. Fortunately, the Supreme Court still does. The uninformed gut response of Harper and his right-wing base is to shut down In-Site because it offends their personal sensibilities, and that would almost certainly result in deaths, which is demonstrated by the scientific evidence. 

To put it another, maybe more accessible, way: you wouldn't ask some random person you met on the bus to take your appendix out, would you? Why not? If everyone's ignorance is as good as those academic elites' knowledge, then certainly that guy that works at Wendy's is just as qualified to perform surgery as a surgeon. Right? 

No? So maybe, those who have studied specific fields intensively for many years maybe, just maybe, might have an edge on your gut feeling.

But those who know things, because they have studied and conducted experiments and gathered evidence, often disagree with the Harper Way. So, it is useful for him, if not for Canadians, to influence the common perception of academics, scientists, and intellectuals to make sure people see these individuals in a negative light, and their advice, statements, and studies as discredited and irrelevant. 


Unions are one of the favourite bogeymen for the CPC, especially when fundraising. "You should send us money...because UNIONS!!!!!" 
There are several large unions in Canada that have negotiated good wages, good benefits and good retirement packages for their members. It's a strange thing that some people resent them for this. It is similar to saying, "It's not fair, my car wouldn't start this morning but my neighbour's car did. To make things fair, my neighbour's car should not start either." To put it another way, if you and another employee at the same company have identical credentials and experience, have been in your identical jobs the same amount of time and you find out the other person makes more money than you do, do you demand that their pay be reduced to match yours? Or do you demand that your pay be increased to match theirs? Does it not make more sense, and result in a better situation for everyone, if people work to gain better working terms for themselves and their co-workers, rather than spending time resenting others who have already managed to improve their circumstances? 

A second issue that makes it easy for governments to vilify unions is that union actions are disruptive. They are inconvenient. This is the power behind the labour movement. They can leverage good wages, benefits and retirement plans because workers united can exert pressure on employers in ways that individual workers cannot. In a capitalist system, the owners of the means of production hold all the cards, unless the workers organize to require that owners share the fruits of the workers' labour. So, yes, strikes are annoying. They make everyone's life difficult. And people, in general,  have lost sight of the higher purpose of these actions.

Before the labour movement began, there were no limits to how long people were required to work each day. There were no requirements of giving employees days off - the weekend did not exist in any meaningful way. There was no minimum wage. There were no workplace health and safety regulations. No pension plans. No prohibition on child labour. Employees could be fired for anything, or nothing at all. There were no rules about sexual harassment. Labour unions did not only improve things in their own shops, they also pressured governments into legislating fair working conditions for all workers, unionized or not. 

Some people say, well, we have all that now. There is no need for unions anymore. But this is simply not true. There are still those who would like to see minimum wages reduced or eliminated. Companies come up with clever ways to get around workplace standards, to the detriment of workers. One of the Conservative think-tanks (the Frontier Centre on Public Policy) has just begun advocating a return to child labour and a reduction of wages to compensate employers for taking on workers with no experience, i.e. children. Read about it here

Attacks on the gains made by the labour movement are all around us. Temporary Foreign Workers, governments legislating unions back to work (thus removing their power to negotiate for their members), the loss of full-time jobs with benefits in our economy (replaced by cheaper, part-time jobs without benefits).... The gap between the rich and the poor is expanding. Jobs are harder to find, especially for young people. Vast multi-national corporations are controlling more and more of the economy. We need unions as much now as ever, because people as individual workers are becoming even more powerless. 

The Harper Government is certainly not the first government to find unions troublesome, but it is arguably the most viscerally opposed to unionization. Unions give power to the common people. Harper does not like to share power with anyone. Unionism and all that comes with it - minimum wages, health and safety standards, etc. - cut into corporate profits, and that is anathema to Harper. It is not true that paying people decently and providing benefits makes consumer goods more expensive. At least it doesn't have to be true. Corporations already making obscene profits should not, in good conscience, make the argument that increases in wages will have to be passed on to the consumer. But among such groups it is a form of extreme sacrilege to suggest that the cost of treating employees decently should maybe be offset by a slight reduction in the profit line.


Canadians do not understand their own system of government. Harper is exploiting this. He can say anything he likes about how government is meant to work and so few people actually know the reality of how it is suppose to work, that he is rarely challenged. This is evidenced by a poll conducted by the Dominion Institute here.  Francis Russell does an excellent job of explaining the issue and I encourage you to read her article here. The long and short of it is, coalitions are a perfectly valid form of government in a parliamentary democracy, but Harper made it sound like an evil, illegal plot. This is yet another example of how Harper will exploit the imperfect information available to Canadians to achieve his own goals.

In Conclusion...
The main point I am attempting to get across in all this, Dear Reader, is that not only is Harper trying to change our economy, our justice system, our health care, and our social programs. He is trying to change how we THINK. And he is doing this by carefully manipulating the meaning of words. Language is key to the tools we have to examine issues and reach conclusions about them. The CPC have a huge team of advisors from the US who are especially skilled in manipulating meaning. Nothing that comes out of the mouths of the Harper team, either read directly from the script, or recited, is accidental. Just as in war reporting, terms like "assets" and "collateral damage" are used to sanitize the information, making living breathing soldiers who are someone's sons and daughters into an inventory item (assets), and similarly make living, breathing people who are injured or killed by our soldiers into  a vague term (collateral damage) that expresses nothing of blood and pain and loss, so too are the words used by our government meant to make certain unpalatable ideas easier to accept, and make other, previously accepted and valued ideas into negatives. CPC spokespeople are taught key words and how to use them. When they speak, pay attention. Think critically. Look for independent confirmation of their assertions. Don't take them at their word, because it probably doesn't mean what you think it means.