“For many victims, living with the aftermath of a crime is a real and undeniable challenge,” Norm Sterling, Minister Of Correctional Services, told reporters. “The justice system needs to be reminded that a crime continues to rob the victims of their personal sense of safety.” It remained for Detective-Sergeant John Muise, of the province’s Office for Victims of Crime, to explain that victims will not be allowed to “call the shots or make decisions” regarding what happens to criminals. But they will be given a voice, and that voice will be heard by the offender.
It is important to note that Messrs. Sterling and Muise did not say victims need to meet with offenders in order to forgive them, or to try to arrive at some understanding of the criminals’ motivation (“I wish my assailant had told me at the outset that his mother was a drug addict. Had I but known he was disadvantaged I would have given him the family silver and the keys to the mini-van.”). Rather, Mr. Sterling affirmed that one result of the new legislation will be to remind the state that crimes are committed, in most cases, against persons.
And that is where the legislation’s true conservatism comes in. Conservatives believe that true justice cannot be achieved without recognizing that the state must act on behalf of real people who have suffered real loss. The state metes out punishment in part because the offender deserves to suffer a degree of pain, both psychological and physical, that as closely as possible compares to the suffering he has caused. Such punishment is based on the assumption that the offender is a responsible moral agent who, for reasons that should not be defended, freely chose to break the laws of man and God. The liberal mindset, on the other hand, stands opposed to the very concept of punishment. It prefers to see the offender as a victim of circumstances, and chooses to view incarceration as an opportunity to fix, or heal, the victim-offender.
The distinction between the liberal and conservative approach to justice was highlighted by NDP MPP Peter Kormos’ reaction to the new legislation’s second provision, which proposes to set grooming and hygiene standards for Ontario prisoners. The details will be spelled out at some future date, Mr. Sterling said. But he assured reporters that the emphasis would be on cleanliness and safety, not on such details as prisoners’ hair length. Nevertheless, Mr. Kormos proved himself unable to judge the legislation’s provisions by anything other than the therapeutic model. “I understand the minister’s obsession with good grooming,” he said, “but to suggest that if Charles Manson had a decent shave and a haircut that that would have changed his character is very naive.”
Aside from the fact that no one with the Ontario government had said they believed good grooming would change character, Mr. Kormos’ inability to discuss any other purpose behind incarceration other than the possibility that it might be used to change offenders’ characters was an unwitting exposure of what the liberal mindset is all about. He could have criticized the Tory legislation as an unfair invasion of prisoners’ privacy, but he did not. In fact, except when used to defend various expressions of sexual deviancy, privacy as a theoretical concept is not at all popular with liberals. Mr. Kormos and his fellows are all about changing character, in schools and prisons alike. They just do not believe it can be done through good grooming.
But the conservative believes prison terms must first be used to remind offenders that they are moral agents held accountable for breaking the law. As social scientist James Q. Wilson puts it in his 1997 book, Moral Judgment, conservatives “really believe that people can morally be held responsible for all but a relatively small number of actions that are truly involuntary or the product of manifest duress.” Incarceration, in his view, “sends a message to people who are learning how to behave that they ought to acquire those habits and beliefs that will facilitate their conformity to the essential rules of civilized conduct; second, a strict view of personal accountability sends a message to individuals choosing between alternative courses of action that there are important consequences that are likely to flow from making a bad choice.”
This seems to be the very direction in which the Harris Tories are heading. And funnily enough, the more the Ontario prison population is given an enhanced sense of personal accountability, the faster crime and recidivism rates will drop. When governments try to play god in prisoners’ lives by “fixing” them, the ensuing loss of personal accountability makes prisoners more apt to blame external forces for their law-breaking, and thus more apt to reoffend.