‘Making change is tough’: A criminologist on rethinking crime prevention

TVO.org speaks with Irvin Waller about community-based interventions — and what it will take to change the system
By Daniel Kitts - Published on Apr 08, 2021
"When you actually attack a cause, and change it, you get less crime," Irwin Waller says. (irwinwaller.org)

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This week, TVO launched a new podcast called Unascertained, which explores the troubling death of a man in an Ontario jail.

Struggling with mental-health issues when he was arrested, 30-year-old Soleiman Faqiri died in solitary confinement in Lindsay’s Central East Correctional Centre in 2016. Even though there were more than 50 signs of blunt-impact trauma to his body, a coroner determined that the cause of death was “unascertained.” The podcast tries to untangle the mystery of Faqiri’s death, raising serious questions about the province’s corrections system and how it deals with people with mental illness.

Episode one of TVO's 'Unascertained.'

TVO.org speaks with Irvin Waller, professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa and author of The Science and Secrets of Ending Violent Crime, about metal-health interventions, the options for community-based crime prevention — and why he thinks the existing system is slow to change.

TVO.org: Are there examples of community-based programs that can deter crime more effectively than the traditional criminal-justice system?

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Irvin Waller: I think it's important to split that question into two steps. The first step is to have a crime-prevention and community-safety plan. The importance of this is you're looking at what appears to be the causes of violent crime in your municipality or in your province, then asking: What are the things that are likely to reduce it? How can you mobilize the sectors you need to mobilize? Are you getting adequate and sustained funding for it? Are you training people? How do you engage the public? Now that's quite a mouthful. But in cities that have reduced violent crime significantly, like Glasgow, in Scotland, that's exactly what they did.

The second step is, what are the sorts of things that a good analysis would lead you to do? This depends a little bit on the type of violence. Is this street gun violence? Is it violence against women or violence against children?

At the top of my list, because gun violence gets so much attention, is outreach to young men who are likely to be involved in the behaviours that lead to gun violence. You outreach with social-worker-type people whom those young men trust, and you get them to think about whether they could be happier by getting out of that way of life by completing school and getting job training. And linked to that is doing outreach in hospital emergency rooms. So when a young man comes in with a gun or knife wound, you don't just sew him up; you actually focus on him and say, “Do you really want to be in this amount of pain again?” Those two things are incredibly effective. You would expect a 50 per cent reduction in violence within two or three years from the moment you actually start the action. So it may take you a year or two to do the planning. But once you start, you will get the reductions of 50 per cent or better.

TVO.org: If at the core of traditional crime prevention is the idea of deterrence, what's at the core of these community crime-prevention strategies?

Waller: You’re tackling the causes of why they engage in criminal behaviour. When you actually attack a cause, and change it, you get less crime. That's what these scientific evaluations of programs such as youth outreach, life-skills programs in schools, and early childhood programs show.

TVO.org: TVO recently launched a podcast looking at the death in custody of Soleiman Faqiri, a man diagnosed with schizophrenia who was arrested when he was in crisis. What are some community strategies that can specifically help people suffering from mental illness avoid negative interactions with police?

Waller: I think you've got to look at two things. First, we shut down our mental hospitals in the 1980s. And we released a lot of people onto the streets, and we said we were going to help them stay reasonably sane through community programs and through drugs. Unfortunately, we never did that, or we never did it enough. So we've got to spend on that. Secondly, even when you do things perfectly, you're going to get some cases of schizophrenia and mental illness in the community. So you have to ask, well, what's the best way to respond? We don't have as much research on this as somebody like me would like. What we do know is that some programs, like Cahoots, which originated in Oregon, seem effective. It’s basically outreach workers with some sort of mental-health training reaching out to these individuals in crisis.

TVO.org: How does Ontario fare compared to other jurisdictions when it comes to investing in community-based crime-prevention strategies?

Waller: It doesn't fare very well, but it is doing a little bit of the first step. Community-safety and well-being planning is now required by legislation. [In 2019, the province required all municipalities to develop safety and well-being planning under the Police Services Act.] But to have legislation that requires it is not the same as to have something as good as Glasgow. You actually have to train people; you have to make sure that the plan is done the way that the evidence says you should do it. You need to shift money into what will actually tackle those causes. Or if you don't shift money, you have to shift priorities within sectors like schools.

TVO.org: I want to conclude with I guess a bit of a personal question. It seems you’ve been at this work for a very long time. And through a lot of that time, we've had a lot of very “tough on crime” policies. But we do seem to be seeing politicians now advocating for change. And I'm wondering how optimistic you are that we're going to be seeing the type of changes that you have been working to see.

Waller: Well, I worked for the federal government when the death penalty was abolished and when major gun control legislation was introduced. So I know that government can make a significant change — if they decide that they're going to do it.

I'm cautiously optimistic. [The] Glasgow [approach] is spreading across the United Kingdom. It took them 10 years to start spreading it, but it's spreading. We will see some cities that decide to make things happen. I'm not confident that Toronto is going to make changes.

TVO.org: Why not?

Waller: I think if the rate of gun violence doubled again, it would be more likely. The city council had a vote [last year] where a number of councillors wanted to move money from the police budget into prevention, and twice as many councillors voted against it.

Unfortunately, politicians don't really care about saving lives, stopping injuries, protecting women from violence. This is not a priority for them. The status quo is powerful. We’re spending $14 billion a year [in Canada] on policing. And it's basically okay policing by international standards. People generally think our justice system is okay. Prisons, by international standards, are not that bad. So are you really going to go against the police unions?

It's a change. And making a change is tough. Even in our individual lives, making a simple change — putting the garbage out on Thursday instead of Wednesday — is difficult. This is also true at the systems level. We have this police system. We have this court system. We have this correction system. To shift from that is not easy.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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