Putting a halt to crime

The City of Edmonton is taking a fresh approach to preventing crime, thanks in large part to the work of criminologist Irvin Waller.

by Tim Lougheed

Even the most sound and well-researched academic advice can meet with a difficult reception in the rough-and-tumble world of public policy. Department of Criminology professor and director of the Institute for the Prevention of Crime at the University of Ottawa Irvin Waller was well aware of this fact when he wrote Less Law, More Order, a book tackling the thorny issue of how to reduce crime in our society by providing knowledge to policy makers and voters. He argues that we are better off concentrating on the prevention of criminal activity rather than only legislating degrees of punishment for criminals.

The idea is simple, but it runs counter to a popular desire to see individuals “pay” for their transgressions. The federal and Ontario governments have recently indulged in this desire by increasing the severity of sentencing. This approach may get media headlines, but, for Waller, it does not address the underlying causes of crime.

He was pleased to learn then that lawmakers in Alberta had understood what reduces crime and was taking concrete measures. Soon after his book was published in 2006, a provincial task force asked him for help to develop a strategy that would emphasize prevention and treatment as much as it would emphasize punishment.

The task force featured people who work on the front lines of law and order, including Edmonton’s police chief. For Waller, addressing this group was nothing less than “an amazing life experience.” Group members listened to him and opted for real solutions that would save people from becoming victims of crime and not just confront criminals aft er the fact.

“I told them exactly what they need to do,” he says. “And it’s do-able—if you’ve got political guts to do it and want to reduce crime.”

The provincial government demonstrated guts aplenty, committing $500 million over three years to crime prevention and making it a key issue in the then-upcoming 2008 election. That vote saw the ruling party returned to power with an increased majority, which Waller took as a sign that crime prevention can win popular support.

Edmonton has since acted on such support, becoming a leading international test site in this field. In 2008, the city’s mayor created a task force to develop a 10-year plan to reduce crime and violence. The result, so far, is priorities quite distinct from any “get tough” strategy of increasing funds to pay for more police and prisons. Instead, the city has started to dramatically enhance a range of social services to ward off criminal activity. Educators help identify young people whose social or economic circumstances put them at risk of joining gangs. Other organizations off er these same individuals some appealing alternatives to spending their time on the streets. Some also provide information on birth control and assistance with other health matters, for example, helping individuals cope with major challenges like fetal alcohol syndrome.

The example set by this city is being watched closely by others, in Canada and elsewhere. The University of Ottawa’s Institute for the Prevention of Crime has coordinated a formal exchange of information through a network created for this purpose and comprising 14 Canadian cities. The network operates under a $1.5 million program supported by Public Safety Canada, which asked the Institute to establish a national working group on crime policy.

The concepts Waller set out in Less Law, More Order subsequently evolved into a highly condensed series of action briefs. In a few pages, each brief outlines some aspect of crime prevention, what can be done about it and what steps elected officials can take.

“This project has generated a lot of interest,” he says. “Mississauga— which isn’t one of the 14 cities— passed a resolution saying it wants to be part of this. Kingston, Brantford, Oshawa, they also have champions on their council who want to be part of it.”

“Once you frame the issue in terms of reducing the number of victims and doing this in a way that’s sensitive to taxpayers, politicians can pick it up and see how you can deal with both smarter enforcement and smarter prevention,” says Waller. “Alberta picked up on that.”

What is going on here is being discussed in countries like China, Mexico, Argentina and Germany. And as Less Law, More Order is translated into more languages, the Alberta model is inspiring politicians around the world to re-examine their own approach to crime prevention. 

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