OTTAWA - Great politics, lousy policy.
That's how criminologists and critics are summing up the Conservative push for more penalties after a spate of 18 shootings in British Columbia blamed on gang warfare.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper heads to Vancouver on Thursday to talk up a new bill that, if passed, is expected to deem any gang-related killing a case of first-degree murder.
The Conservatives also promised in the last election to create a new criminal offence, with a mandatory prison term, for drive-by shootings.
It's the government's latest flex of legislative muscle as it renews a crime-fighting agenda that partly died when Harper forced an early election last fall.
The punitive response may play well to citizens who fear gun battles erupting on city streets. But that get-tough approach lards the Criminal Code with redundant laws that haven't worked in other countries, says criminologist Irvin Waller.
"This is yet again a debate about penalties when it's very clear from looking south of the border that these penalties do not make a lot of difference to the number of people killed," he said.
"It's not a debate about what will actually stop them from happening."
Waller, a professor at the University of Ottawa, wrote the book Less Law, More Order to educate politicians on prevention and smart policing practices that have worked in other countries.
A rash of gang-style killings in Boston 18 years ago was stopped in a few months, Waller said. The successful strategy relied on focused policing, diversion programs and efforts to mobilize the mothers of kids who might join gangs.
"Give people an option," he said. "When somebody gets killed you quickly get in touch with friends and family to help them and try to avoid revenge killings that just escalate the problem."
Statistics Canada has long warned of increasing gang-linked murders even as the general homicide rate fell, Waller said. The agency reported last October that of 594 murders across Canada in 2007, one in five was gang related.
"Frankly, people are asleep at the switch," Waller said.
"We should have been looking at what other countries are doing. We should have been putting money into those things. And maybe we wouldn't have had this rash" in Vancouver.
Prevention programs are key, said Neil Boyd, a lawyer who teaches criminology at Simon Fraser University.
He calls the Conservative focus on adding yet more legal punishments a "bizarre" bit of political window-dressing.
"It's far too late in the game. And it's a pretence for the prime minister to say they're going to have any impact," he said.
"These people aren't going to be deterred by: 'Oh! It's automatic now. If it's gang-related, they're going to call it first-degree (murder)'. It's all first-degree violence anyway, for the most part.
"It's got nothing to do with protecting the public. But unfortunately politicians survive on short-term three-to four-year time frames and it seems they're doing something. They're catering to public anger."
Harper defended his record Wednesday in the House of Commons as Liberal MPs chastised him for not doing more to beef up Vancouver police and prevent deadly gang wars.
"This government has made efforts to tackle crime at all levels a major priority of our government - whether it is toughening sentences or investing in programs for youth at risk," he said.
Waller points out that the government actually spent less than half of a $42-million crime-prevention fund in 2007-08.
The Conservatives say that's because of a change in focus to multi-year projects that can be tracked for results, and that cash will be increased this year to divert kids from gangs.
As Harper heads Thursday to Vancouver, B.C.'s attorney general and its public safety minister will be on Parliament Hill.
Wally Oppal and John van Dongen will meet with federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson to push for tougher sentencing, disclosure and surveillance laws to fight gangs.
OTTAWA - Great politics, lousy policy.