One of the most valuable lessons my Dad taught me as a kid was the linear working of a car motor. Back then fuel left the gas tank, traveled to the carburetor, and was dribbled into cylinders where a spark did the rest. The pistons then pushed a cam shaft and a transmission talked to the back wheels, and the result was that the harder you pressed on the gas pedal the quicker you got to the Tasty Freeze. The universe made sense back then.
So as I watch the frenzy of prison building now happening in this country, and the way Canadians en masse have lined up to drink the Kool-Aid of longer prison terms (even for children), I’m thinking it might be a good time for a lesson on the linear working of the motor that powers the Canadian justice system. It may not get you to your goal any faster, but at least you’ll understand where all the gas is going.
Today’s lesson will be a field trip – let’s call it a walk with Billy Bean. The first thing we need to know about Billy is that Billy loves crack cocaine. Unfortunately for him, Canada doesn’t (yet) have a state sponsored crack cocaine program, so Billy spends his afternoons breaking into cars and houses, liberating whatever his heart desires – or whatever the pawn shop will take off his hands. Today, Billy is walking down your street, and notices your porch light on and that you haven’t cleared the mailbox in a couple of days. Everybody say hello to Billy.
The next day, you and your small family return from a hard earned week away, and even as you pull into the driveway, you know that something isn’t right. The front window blinds are hanging all wrong. Your heart beats a little faster. Grabbing your phone from the visor, you look at your wife and ask her to stay in the car for a minute. She looks back at you with eyes just a little more knowing than normal.
Bypassing the carport door you always enter through, you instead walk up to the front door – like a stranger. Then you do something no person should ever have to do at the front door of their own home. You knock. Loudly. And after taking a deep breath, you turn the key and walk into what the whispering shadows of your mind tell you might be the dead end of a really great day.
If there is any good news in the above scenario, it’s that the overwhelming majority of home burglaries in Canada never result in physical violence. Like any other rodent invasion, you are far more likely to find the poop than the rat. Unfortunately, on this day, there is poop everywhere. Dresser drawers open – including the one where your wife’s silky things usually are. Stereo speakers (the ones that sat in front of the living room blinds) are gone, and with them the new Blue Ray player you got the family last Christmas. But the deepest cut of all is the watchcase. It was your Dad’s – the only thing you kept after the funeral. The empty space where it last sat on your bedroom dresser now throbs like a phantom limb, and under your breath you swear that somebody is going to pay. What most Canadians never stop to consider is that that somebody is you. Walk with me.
Step one – call the cops. 911 will ask if it’s an emergency, and after discerning that it isn’t, will direct you to the general inquiries number of your local police precinct. Eventually (sometimes the same day) a car or two will come around, and a couple of pleasant officers will take your statement. Then they’ll lift a few fingerprints from the usual places: drawer fronts, doorknobs, a window casing – the half full beer bottle Billy left on the counter. They’ll say a few comforting words in parting, accept your heartfelt thanks, and leave you with the belief that the worst is behind you. At $78,000 per year, a compassionate cop can really feel like money well spent.
Step two – call a carpenter. The crack head who broke into your house wasn’t just stupid enough to leave his finger prints everywhere; he had to rip out the entire window casing in your kitchen to get in – instead of just breaking the thirty dollar window in the door right next to it and turning the inside knob. But securing the family home is not an option, and the $900 dollar bill is just the price of sleeping soundly. You write a cheque.
Step three – call your insurance broker. This is where your teeth stop chattering and start grinding. Do you have receipts for your wife’s missing underwear? Are you aware that the replacement price of electronics is hardly what you paid last year? Do you have a photo of the watchcase? Did you ever have it appraised? And most importantly, are you aware that your particular policy has a $1,500 deductible? Grrrr.
Step four – Constable Caring phones you. Good news. Our multi-million dollar fingerprint identification system has spit out a name – Billy Bean. Do you know him? Whether you do or not is immaterial, because Billy is well known to police. In fact, the precinct has assigned a couple of their best burglary detectives to track him down. It feels good to know that these $93,000 per year senior officers are on the case. Somebody is doing something.
Step five – eureka. Billy is busted. A $113,000 per year junior Crown Prosecutor named Sarah calls you at work with the good news, and says you may need to testify if there is a trial. No problem. You can’t wait to see the scumbag’s face in court. She says that the suspect has a long record of this sort of thing, and is confident that they’re going to put him behind bars for a long time. You ask if the scumbag happened to have your Dad’s watchcase when they caught him. Sarah isn’t sure. But if she hears something, she’ll let you know.
Step six – the trial. It’s been eight months since your life was turned upside down. For the past two weeks, you‘ve gone over it repeatedly in your head: what you will say to the judge; the look of disgust you will give the creep as you stare him down from the witness box; the demand you mill make that your precious heirloom be returned. You book the day off work and arrive at the courthouse at 9:30, as instructed. Sarah meets you outside Provincial courtroom 303 and greets you with a warm smile. She directs you to a bench and says your case is the third one scheduled. She will send an assistant out to get you when they’re ready.
Two hours and eleven games of Tetris later – Sarah comes out to let you know you can go home. They don’t need you. Bean’s lawyer has moved the case to disclosure court, downstairs. As yours wasn’t the only house he invaded that week, Bean’s Legal-Aid funded lawyer has struck a deal for him to plead guilty to seven other break and enters in exchange for a global prison sentence of two years. It’s over.
Two years. At least the scumbag will be paying for the grief he caused your family. But it hardly feels like justice. You sure wish he had gotten more time – and that you could have gotten the watch box back. Then again, sometimes you just have to let things go. It’s a beautiful spring day, and you have other important things to think about. May 1st is coming, and you still haven’t done your taxes. With the break-in, and all the stress-time off work, it’s been a tough year for net income. You wonder if you might have to dip into your overdraft to keep Canada Revenue Services at bay. Then, as you approach the paid parking spot where you left your car, a metallic taste fills your mouth. You know there’s no way that you left that passenger side window unrolled…
In 2009, Statistics Canada reported that the cost of policing the nation had jumped six percent over the previous year – to eleven billion dollars. It was the biggest one-year jump in police costs since 1990.
That same year, the budget for federal and provincial prisons combined exceeded four billion dollars. The government expects that number to balloon to almost ten billion by 2015, and has gotten a jump start on that with the hiring of seven thousand new federal corrections officers – at more than $70,000 a year each.
The cost of administering justice, in the form of thousands of Legal-Aid lawyers, Crown Prosecutors, Judges, and clerical staff, is much harder to peg. The legal industry isn’t sweet on baring its books. But cross-country consensus says that no one above the clerical level brings home less than six figures, and that certainly includes the hundreds of folks that sit in parliamentary committees and senate hearings creating new criminal offences every year. Taken all together, that’s one hungry carburetor.
While it’s reasonable that the cost of driving a free and just society will never be cheap, it’s also reasonable to ask if it really needs to be this expensive. Especially when governments are eyeing up pension and health care funds to fuel the nitrous oxide of retribution. And while I freely admit to having more questions than answers, the one thing I do know is that it won’t be Billy filling your tank. He’s too busy smoking weed in the cell down the hall.