Many Norwegians responded in disbelief and anger when it was announced that convicted mass murderer Anders Breivik had enrolled in a political science course at the University of Oslo. Allowing a mass murderer to enroll in a university course was going too far. The university’s rector, Ole Petter Ottersen, explained that Breivik will not be admitted to campus, and that he will pursue his studies in his cell. Ottersen held that changing the law which allows convicts to further their education, reacting to his crimes with a lex Breivik, would place Norway on a slippery slope. Ottersen reminded his fellow citizens that “Breivik will have to read about democracy and justice, and about how pluralism and respect for individual human rights, protection of minorities and fundamental freedoms have been instrumental for the historical development of modern Europe.”
Ottersen had no further to look for an example of the inefficiency of reactionary legislation than to Canada’s long gun registry, adopted in the aftermath of the École Polytechnique massacre of 1986. Data provided by Statistics Canada show a marked decrease in rifle-related homicides in the year following the implementation of that law, but this had no effect on the acrimonious political debate on the subject of the gun registry. Enormous sums were invested in the implementation and subsequent repeal of our lex Lépine, and while the rifle-related homicide rate did decline relative to homicides by other means, the legislation’s impact on the overall homicide rate was insignificant. We cannot know what results might have been achieved if the resources applied to the gun registry had instead been directed to understanding and addressing the conditions that lead to homicide.
Why do each of the four western provinces consistently record the highest homicide rates in the country; each one higher than the Canadian average? Why is British Columbia’s homicide rate consistently higher, by 75 percent, than Quebec’s homicide rate, notwithstanding that province’s reputation for criminal activities? For the last two decades Canada’s murder rate has stubbornly remained in the highest third grouping of OECD countries. When will we start to direct some attention and resources to help us understand why eight OECD countries succeeded in cutting their murder rate in half and more over the past decade while Canada is one of eight OECD countries whose murder rate rose during that same period?
The federal government decided to ditch lex Lépine and get tough on crime. “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” was the catchy motto for Baretta, a 1970s-era American detective TV series. Reality is not a TV drama, and exacting revenge by imposing minimum incarceration terms and cutting inmates’ pay for work performed is not likely to reduce Canada’s murder rate. “I would kill you if I could serve a short time in comfort, but not if I have to do 15 years of hard time” is not the likely scenario considered by a person about to commit murder.
If tough on crime policies were effective the United States would not be competing with Chile and Mexico for the highest murder rate among OECD countries. The background of many violent offenders is marked by violence and depravation. A policy of revenge is more likely to confirm than to change their life experience.
Public funds are best applied to the formative years of children, from daycare to college graduation. The experiences of these years shape life-long values. Best intentions and efforts cannot eliminate all risks of a Breivik or Lépine growing up in our midst. When faced with that reality we must resist the temptation to react by seeking revenge. We owe it to the victims of violent crimes to take Ottersen’s advice and provide such offenders with the opportunity to spend their time behind bars learning how democracy and justice, pluralism and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are the essence of a free society.