Law & order

Book review

Less law, more order: The truth about reducing crime
By Irvin Waller
Praeger, 2007

Irvin Waller, a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, has made it his career and mission to get governments throughout much of the world to shift their emphasis from law enforcement to prevention, with some limited success. His book is a plaintive cry for movement by government in the direction of more attention to crime preventive approaches. There is something of an undercurrent of frustration: can’t you politicians learn from the clear scientifically proven evidence? It’s all there. Why don’t you do what is so clear?

He has a point.

What Waller shows is that huge expenditures on enforcement do not lead to substantial decreases in crime. Instead, they eat up the money that could better be spent to prevent crime and they lead to correctional facilities bursting at the seams. He points to strategies that are more effective.

Focus, he says, on public health nurses visiting new mothers, on good child care, on programs to cut down on dropouts and bullying in schools. Follow Vancouver’s lead in providing safe injection sites and Amsterdam’s approach to getting prostitution off the street. Buildings and communities can be planned to prevent crime through such measures as good lighting and neighbourhood watch programs based on a community development model, as opposed to the usual police-initiated approach.

Waller calls on cities to take the lead in the fight against crime by developing co-operative and targeted strategies among the various players – police, city planners, social agencies and schools – to identify the hot spots, diagnose causal factors and institute programs to address problem behaviour, setting specific targets for change. Cities, he argues, must lead the way.

One can pick at a point here and there in his presentation. For example, the savings Waller sees accruing from his approach occur over time, but they demand major expenditures here and now – a significant commitment that Waller underplays.

While the kind of co-operative approach to local prevention advocated by Waller can help alleviate the crime problem, the governmental structures we have in place do not make the task any easier. Local governments are severely hampered in their capacity to raise revenues. Provinces are unwilling to give municipalities the power to levy an income tax, a power that a number of American cities exercise.

All that said, Waller’s approach makes good sense. It would reduce crime and save money that could better be spent on programs to improve conditions in our cities and our nation.