Innocent victims slain over the past year in Surrey and Abbotsford, along with dozens of gang-linked shootings, have made crime a hot topic in the federal election campaign.
All three major parties have promised to add more police to fight gang crime, including Liberal and NDP vows to immediately deploy 100 more Mounties in Surrey.
But the Conservatives continue to project themselves as toughest on crime.
Leader Stephen Harper has vowed to reintroduce a lapsed “life means life” bill to take away any chance at parole for the worst murderers.
It comes on top of earlier reforms, like the stacking of parole eligibility periods so a quadruple murderer can now be made to wait 100 years for a shot at getting out.
Other key changes have reduced the scope to use house arrest rather than jail, and reduced parole leniency for non-violent offenders.
But the Harper crime agenda has been reined in by the courts, which have limited government attempts to impose more minimum sentences, most notably striking down mandatory three-year terms for gun crimes.
The government also tried to erase the practice of granting double credit for remand time served in jail before trial, but the Supreme Court has allowed judges to continue to grant 1.5 days credit for each day served.
“The Supreme Court’s decisions have hobbled or at the very least bridled the Conservatives’ law-and-order agenda,” SFU criminologist Rob Gordon said.
He’s among the observers who warn the lock-em-up-longer approach threatens to cost Canada billions of dollars more to imprison convicts, as well as more protracted fights in the courts that will mainly benefit constitutional lawyers.
One of the newest Conservative campaign promises is to create a list of gangs to make prosecuting members easier without first having to prove in each case that the group is a criminal organization.
Gordon doubts it will work because, in the case of the Hells Angels, not every member of the gang is involved in serious organized crime.
“In Surrey, this is even less worthwhile because the groups active in the last six months don’t have names,” Gordon said. “They don’t run around with banners saying they are members of this, that or the other organization.”
Other new Tory promises pledge two-year minimum sentences for fraudsters with multiple victims unless there’s full restitution, and easing the burden of evidence in prosecuting drunk drivers, although it’s unclear whether that would reverse B.C.’s recent shift from impaired prosecutions to roadside penalties.
Despite the intense spotlight on warring gangs, criminologists like Gordon point out crime rates have actually been declining for decades.
“Crime is falling and so is the rate of severe crimes,” he said.
The reason isn’t Conservative policy, he said, but societal changes, particularly the demographic shift that’s left proportionally fewer young men who are most prone to crime.
Technology has helped. There are more theft-resistant cars, alarm-protected homes, and video cameras poised to record crimes than ever before. And youth who were once more apt to find trouble outside may be increasingly diverted now by online distractions that keep them indoors or staring at screens.
“There are pop-ups of course, in particular in spots like Surrey, which all has to do with the illegal drug trade and the failure to deal with that,” Gordon said.
What would work to further cut crime?
Gordon lists marijuana reform and an end to the Lower Mainland’s patchwork system of RCMP and municipal police jurisdictions.
Advocates have repeatedly called for more wraparound services to help intercept and rehabilitate prolific offenders, as well as better addiction treatment, education, gang prevention initiatives, and even anti-poverty measures like housing for the homeless.
Gordon said such social policy strategies hold promise, but don’t resonate with voters as well as hawkish rhetoric, and politicians who propose them may be denounced as soft on crime.
The NDP would decriminalize marijuana, while the Liberals and Greens would legalize it and tax it.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has said he may repeal some mandatory minimums on sentencing, which he said should be reserved for serious and violent offences.
Liberals have pledged to tighten access to handguns and restricted firearms, and devote $100 million a year to anti-gang task forces to target gun and gang violence.
The NDP have said they’d strive to emphasize rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners.
NDP leader Tom Mulcair has also pledged $250 million for a police recruitment fund and to invest $40 million to reverse cuts to shelters for women fleeing violence.
Guns seized from Metro Vancouver gang members after coordinated raids this spring by anti-gang police. Contributed photo.