OTTAWA - Decades of evidence on prison policy is being trumped by ideology and populist pandering, says an independent report on the Conservative government's corrections road map.
"Raw wedge politics - in place of studied evidence - is the new face of public policy for Canada," Graham Stewart, one of the study's co-authors, said at a news conference Thursday.
Stewart, the retired head of the John Howard Society of Canada, and Michael Jackson, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, have written a 235-page deconstruction of the Harper government's 2007 blueprint for revamping Canadian corrections policies.
Their scathing analysis contends that the government road map starts with what they call an ideological "myth" - that human rights are at odds with public safety.
"What that's doing is polarizing a discussion about corrections in a really unfortunate way," said Stewart.
"It creates the notion that the decent treatment of prisoners is somehow putting the public at risk, when in fact it's the complete reverse. ...
"We don't believe that abuse improves people."
Their analysis was immediately dismissed by Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan, who made a point of referring repeatedly to Jackson as "the professor."
"The professor has a different philosophy than us," Van Loan told CBC Newsworld. "We think the protection of society has to come first."
It was exactly the kind of simple sloganeering that Stewart and Jackson's report repeatedly attacks as unfounded, based on "reams of research" in Canada, the United States and abroad.
Over the last three decades the per capita rate of U.S. prison incarceration has skyrocketed compared with Canada, they noted, yet the two countries' crime rates have risen and fallen together.
As Don Davies, the NDP public safety critic who joined the news conference, observed: "If getting tough on prisons - locking people up longer and more harshly - resulted in a safer society, then United States would be safest country probably on earth."
Financially strapped American state governments are now desperately seeking ways to reduce their prison populations, including rescinding exactly the kinds of tougher sentencing measures the Conservatives are pursuing.
During a 30-year comparative social experiment, said Stewart, Canada has "held the line (on crime), got better results, at a fraction of the cost.
"Why would we decide to go the American route? The only reason I could identify in our discussion is that, whereas it's bad corrections, it's good politics."
Van Loan denied Canada is adopting American-style policies, but acknowledged that more people will be in prison for longer periods of time under the Conservative plan.
"Only if someone is in prison can they receive rehabilitation programs," Van Loan told The Canadian Press.
He acknowledged there are increased costs associated with having a bigger prison population, but told CBC no budget has been set because the government doesn't know how fast the prison population will increase, and there is still existing prison capacity.
It's that kind of lack of data that left Stewart and Jackson agog.
They pulled no punches, citing both Harper and his former chief of staff for having publicly acknowledged that facts don't count in the battle for public opinion on crime policy.
Harper told a partisan audience in January 2008 that critics of his crime policies "try to pacify Canadians with statistics.
"Your personal experiences and impressions are wrong, they say, crime is really not a problem."
The prime minister likened such evidence-based critics to the "man behind the curtain" in the Wizard of Oz.
And Ian Brodie, Harper's former chief of staff, told a McGill University symposium last March that criticism of the tough-on-crime policy by sociologists, lawyers and criminologists actually bolsters the Conservative case - because they are held in lower regard than politicians.
"Politically it helped us tremendously to be attacked by this coalition," said Brodie. "So we never really had to engage in the question of what the evidence actually shows about various approaches to crime."
Jackson and Stewart contend there simply is no evidence to support the Conservative approach. They say the little data cited in the 2007 Tory road map was "completely distorted," while great bodies of evidence were completely ignored.
In Jackson's words, the road map shows a "complete ignorance of history, of law and of evidence."