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More politics than good policy 

A version of this commentary appeared in the Guelph Mercury, the Waterloo Region Record and the Kingston Whig

Crime issues are once again top of the federal government’s agenda. Too bad none of the laundry list of unrelated pieces of legislation will have an impact on actual crime rates — nor will any of the proposed legislation assist the victims of crime.

It’s more politics than good policy in other words.  And Canadians are losing out in the process.

Since 2006, the federal government has raised the mandatory minimum sentence for some gun crimes from four years to five years; imposed mandatory minimum sentences of nine months for those planning to sell six marijuana plants grown in a rented apartment; banned conditional sentences for people found guilty of stealing high-end television sets; and ensured that rehabilitated offenders have to wait five years longer before applying for a pardon.

There is no evidence that any of these laws, or the myriad of other similarly random legislation passed by parliament, has made Canadians safer.

The “Protecting Canada’s Seniors Act” passed in December, is a particularly cynical piece of legislation. It purports to address elder abuse — a serious problem in Canada.  Unfortunately, this Act will do nothing to protect seniors.

A glaring problem with the Act is that elder abuse cases are rarely reported to the police in the first place — it is largely a hidden crime — and offenders who have been reported are seldom convicted.

The legislative summary of the Act prepared by the Library of Parliament points out the sad truth: most elder abuse is committed by family members, and victims do not want family members charged. Other victims may lack the mental capacity to pursue a complaint, and in some cases of financial fraud, the victims do not even know they have been victimized.

But here’s the real reason this Act should be treated like little more than political grandstanding — the new law adds virtually nothing to existing legislation.  In fact, it is difficult to imagine an amendment to the criminal code that does less than this one.

The Criminal Code already required judges to take six specified aggravating factors into account in their sentencing. The new legislation simply adds a seventh factor: “evidence that the offence had a significant impact on the victim, considering their age and other personal circumstances, including their health and financial situation.”

The Bill does not refer to “elder abuse” nor does it specify any particular age at which the aggravating factor should apply. The legislative summary notes that many judges already take the age of the victim into account in sentencing.

If the government had wanted to protect seniors they could have followed several models of best practice, such as the Waterloo Region’s Elder Abuse Response Team,  a partnership between the Waterloo Region Police Service and the Community Care Access Centre.  A detective constable and an elder abuse resource consultant work with a diverse group of partners including health and social services, justice, faith, and ethno-cultural communities to support abused seniors.

The team conducts joint investigations, facilitates linkages to community resources, and case manages situations until a community agency takes over or until the situation is resolved. The team approach allows for meaningful sharing of information to reduce the risk of harm for older persons. The barriers that prevent some victims from accessing police services are reduced by the sharing of information, collaboration within the community and the ability to call directly to team members.

The result: a dramatic 150 per cent increase in the number of referrals in the first two years.  Most of this increase involved cases of physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and self-neglect.

Less than 10 percent of referrals are dealt with by pressing criminal charges — which highlights why increased legal penalties will not have any impact on the incidence of elder abuse.

So, why should Canadians be concerned that legislation like “Protecting Canada’s Seniors Act” is more symbolic than functional?  Meaningless legislation diverts attention from the things that might actually help to reduce crime and to provide better services for victims.

The government should be focusing on what works — investing time and money in improving policing, implementing comprehensive programs such as the exemplary Elder Abuse Response Team, and providing more funding for victims, including seniors.

Rick Linden is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca and teaches criminology at the University of Manitoba.  Arlene Groh is a consultant for Healing Approaches for Elder Abuse and Mistreatment.  She was a founding member of Waterloo Region’s Elder Abuse Response Team.

February 2013

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.