HALIFAX, N.S. — In recent weeks, calls to “defund” police agencies have grown throughout the U.S. and Canada as disturbing images of police brutality against African-Americans and Indigenous people continue to receive high-profile attention.
The term defund is an ambiguously provocative moniker. Even if it is taken literally, there is little chance that any resulting policies will lead to the abandonment of big-city police agencies or the discarding of traditional law enforcement approaches to crime.
Indeed, most of the immediate reforms contemplated in such cities as New York, Los Angeles and Toronto in recent weeks entail only a modicum of budget cuts to their police agencies.
To be sure, some advocate for the abolition of police forces, in part because of the historical and systemic racism that persists in policing and law enforcement cultures, policies, and programs.
Calls to defund branches of the criminal justice system (CJS) are not limited to police; a prison abolition movement has grown in North America and Europe as critics demand a wholesale move away from state-imposed institutionalization and punishment and toward community-based corrections, rehabilitation, and social reintegration. Solitary confinement has become a lightning rod for prison abolitionists who cite research and high-profile cases exposing how its use constitutes a human rights violation.
Calls to defund and abolish the police and the broader carceral structure of criminal “justice” are the result of an increased understanding of the inherent limitations, misuses, and injustices of the CJS that put the sanctity of the entire system beyond even the most meaningful reforms. The traditional cops, courts, and corrections approach is insufficient to unilaterally control, prevent, or deter acts that threaten public safety; the CJS is unable to cope with the actual quantity of crime, fails to identify most criminal offenders and bring them to justice, fails to rehabilitate offenders, and fails to address the underlying factors that contribute to crime and criminality.
There is scant theoretical justification for the traditional CJS approach to controlling crime. Deterrence theory — which assumes that crime results from a rational calculation of the costs and benefits of criminal activity and therefore potential offenders can be swayed from such behaviour through the threat of punishment — rests on the false premise that altering criminal penalties will alter behaviour. In fact, research and statistics generally conclude that increasing the severity of penalties has only a negligible effect on crime and recidivism, especially among serious and chronic offenders (although this body of knowledge did little to influence the Harper Government’s tough-on-crime agenda).
Critics of the CJS also point to its enormous costs, the high rate of incarceration generally and of nonviolent offenders specifically, and the negative impact that a criminal record and incarceration can have on people.
Perhaps the most damning critique of the CJS is that it is fraught with systemic injustices perpetrated against the innocent, victims, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and those with mental illnesses. The most frequent injustices of the CJS in North America are committed against people of African or Indigenous heritage, who are arrested, punished, incarcerated, abused, and killed by the system at a rate far greater than Caucasian offenders. The criminal justice system in Nova Scotia has long been plagued by racism, the latest evidence of which is documented in a 2019 report on racial profiling by Halifax-area police showing that black people were “carded” at a rate six times higher than that of white people.
Another fundamental criticism of the CJS is that it is almost entirely reactive when addressing crime and disorder issues and, as a result, only addresses the symptoms of much deeper social problems. What makes this particularly troubling is that police and the CJS have increasingly become the main state institution in dealing with a broad range of social problems that have nothing to do with crime, such as family breakdown, mental health illnesses, homelessness, poverty, inequality, and racism.
The intrinsic faults and unfairness of the CJS underscore the importance of the defund and abolition movements. It should be noted, however, that many activists and intellectuals behind the calls for defunding are not endorsing the abolition of law enforcement agencies necessarily; instead, they are arguing that funding and other resources be shifted to policies, programs, agencies, and institutions that can more effectively and fundamentally address the root causes of crime and other social problems while avoiding the abuses and injustices wrought by the CJS.
For years, criminologists such as myself have called for a massive shift in resources away from the CJS towards crime prevention and, more specifically, problem-solving solutions that emphasize social and community development. This alternative approach is inherently proactive in that it focuses on the social (root) causes of criminality by strengthening such institutions as the family, housing, schools, health care, social welfare systems, and local communities and economies.
Central to this philosophy is the belief that many social problems currently being dealt with through the CJS should be treated as public health issues and addressed accordingly. A proactive, preventative, public health approach to crime and violence emphasizes such alternatives to policing, law enforcement and the CJS as social workers (to work with troubled families), outreach workers (for at-risk youth and homeless populations), conflict mediators (to prevent violence), community-based psychiatric nurses (to deal with mental health emergencies), supervised group homes (for those with complex needs), restorative justice (as an alternative to courts), as well as addictions treatment centres and safe injection sites.
The American criminologist Peter Greenwood distinguishes between the ultimate goals of the CJS and that of social problem-solving crime prevention. He asserts that the main role of the CJS in helping to produce a civil and orderly society is the control of individuals and groups. In contrast, crime prevention through social and community development is ultimately geared toward the improved functioning of the individual and society.
While disagreements may exist over the definition and extent of “defunding,” there is a growing need to fundamentally re-think how we deal with crime in society. At the very least, less emphasis should be placed on the use of policing, law enforcement, and the broader CJS as the front-line institutions in dealing with social problems. Concomitantly, resources need to be shifted towards those policies, programs, organizations, and institutions that truly address the root causes of crime through proactive, community development, social welfare, and public health interventions, especially ones that serve those who are most marginalized and discriminated against in our society.
Stephen Schneider, a resident of Wolfville, is a professor with St. Mary’s University’s Department of Criminology.