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Judicial CP - April 1995

Alberta Report/Western Report, 17 April 1995

The experts may flog Mr Evans about the lash, but the public supports him

By Link Byfield

At the provincial Conservative convention in Alberta two weekends ago, reports the Edmonton Sun, a delegate asked Justice Minister Brian Evans what the latter thought about lashing prisoners. The delegate's reasoning wasn't recorded, but I expect he thought flogging might help reduce the crime rate and teach criminals better behaviour. Most people think so.

If you were to ask any of our major media deep-thinkers, or a conventional academic or politician, they'd say none but a few frightening sociopaths advocate corporal punishment. But they'd be wrong. The Alberta delegate merely gave voice to what most English Canadians think.

I'm indebted to the Reader's Digest for giving me an early look at one of their Roper Report opinion surveys. This one was taken last summer from 1,235 Canadian adults for a future Digest story about law and crime.

Roper found that 65% of Albertans would lash criminals convicted of child sexual abuse, and 62% would flog rapists. The corresponding figures in B.C. were 56% and 58%, across English Canada 56% and 54%, and 29% and 28% in Quebec.

Other English Canadians were almost as content as Albertans to lash armed robbers, drug dealers and kidnappers. Even for more common offences, many Albertans favoured flogging: for vandalism 43%, drunk driving 38%, and petty theft 22%. The rest of English Canada was not far behind, except for the Atlantic, which was almost as soft as Quebec. In the sex and kidnapping categories, the youngest people (age 18 to 24) were more in favour of the lash than the middle-aged (25 to 49).

Whether Mr. Evans already knew this from some other poll I don't know, but he said he was "perfectly willing to consider the lash," and continued at some length to discuss it. This sets him apart from most experts, who simply dismiss the idea out of hand, usually with the unexplained observation that "it doesn't work."

"My view of the lash," replied Mr. Evans, "and of any other kind of corporal punishment, is to look at it from the practical point of view of what we are trying to do in Alberta. People are sick and tired of reading in the paper and hearing about criminals perpetrating serious crimes against law-abiding Albertans. We have to teach criminals a lesson." His only reservation, he said, was that such a practice might not survive the Charter of Rights.

He could have said -- and most cabinet ministers I know would have said -- "Criminal Code penalties are a federal matter, I can't do anything about it." And many would have added archly, "Besides, there are some cravings for brute vengeance which civilized and compassionate societies don't indulge." Corporal punishment makes everyone uncomfortable; it offends our finer aesthetic sensibilities, and those who urge it are obviously ravening, vindictive sadists who believe in simplistic solutions to complex problems. But people think such things only because they are overly emotional.

The fact is that the lash, harsh though it was, constituted a routine element of criminal punishment until the 1950s. In the 1960s, with the lash gone and the new Canadian Corrections Association firmly in charge, crime began to rise. Between 1962 and 1992, the rate of violent crimes recorded by Canadian police quintupled (from 221 per 100,000 population to 1,081.)

There were many reasons for this increase, no doubt. But it is sensible to think that the removal of the lash from prison sentences contributed to it.

Mr. Evans, I suspect, is worried by the growing tendency of judges, prodded by a furious public, to impose long sentences. Prisons are already crowded, and the only alternatives will be to build more jails or to let prisoners out on parole even sooner than we do now. I'm sure that neither option appeals very much to the country's attorneys- general.

What might make more sense is shorter sentences but harsher punishments, such as the lash. This would help satisfy the three most important elements of criminal justice: punishing the crime itself, teaching the criminal a lesson, and dissuading others from doing the same. We could still give prisoners all the life-skills and anger-management stuff we give them now.

If Mr. Evans is serious, he will order a thorough comparison of the old, punitive prison system compared to the new, supposedly rehabilitative one. There's remarkably little written in this area, but with full access to federal and provincial records it must surely be possible to figure it out. And the study should pay particular attention to the lash, and how many people ever needed a second taste of it. From the accounts I've heard (bowels turning to water, brief but indescribable waves of pain, etc.) I doubt it. Liberals may be right that the old pre-war penal system didn't work. All I know is there was far less crime.

Copyright 1995 by United Western Communications Ltd. Text may not be copied without the express written permission of United Western Communications Ltd.

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