The Harper Doctrine: Once a Criminal, Always a Criminal

Liberal and Conservatives have agreed that our criminal justice system should rehabilitate offenders — until now

In February 1993, Canada’s crime rate stood at an all-time high, Brian Mulroney was prime minister, and a Conservative-dominated House of Commons committee released a report on crime prevention that held no surprises for those who followed criminal justice policy. It described the “inherent inadequacy of the criminal justice system” as a means of addressing the problem, pointing out: “If locking up those who violate the law contributed to safer societies then the United States should be the safest country in the world. In fact the United States affords a glaring example of the limited impact that criminal justice responses may have on crime....Evidence from the U.S. is that costly repressive measures alone fail to deter crime.”

The committee chair, Conservative Member of Parliament and former RCMP officer Bob Horner, told the press, “If anyone had told me when I became an MP nine years ago that I’d be looking at the social causes of crime, I’d have told them that they were nuts. I’d have said, ‘Lock them up for life and throw away the key.’ Not any more.”

Skepticism about the idea that imprisonment constitutes a good solution to the crime problem began decades before these stark statements. In 1938, for example, a Royal Commission examining the country’s penal system concluded: “The undeniable responsibility of the state to those held in its custody is to see that they are not returned to freedom worse than when they were taken in charge. This responsibility has been officially recognized in Canada for nearly a century but, although recognized, it has not been discharged. The evidence before this Commission convinces us that there are very few, if any, prisoners who enter our penitentiaries who do not leave them worse members of society than when they entered them.”

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