Academic journal article Social Justice

Advocacy and Academia: Considering Strategies of Cooperative Engagement

Academic journal article Social Justice

Advocacy and Academia: Considering Strategies of Cooperative Engagement

Article excerpt

In March 2009, Ian Brodie, former chief of staff for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, spoke at a McGill University conference on the role of evidence in government policymaking. His appraisal was frank and candid. He stated that the government, specifically the Conservative government that was in power until defeated by Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party in the October 2015 election, "never really had to engage properly in the question of what evidence actually shows about various approaches to crime" (Brodie 2009). Indeed, the fact that various academics were speaking out against the Conservative government's "tough on crime" policy reforms was politically advantageous for the government:

During my time as a practitioner of public policy in Mr. Harper's government I was piqued, from time to time, to see our government attacked by students of public policy for embarking on policies that some of them thought lacked a firm basis in evidence. Every lime, for example, we proposed amendments to the Criminal Code, sociologists, criminologists, defense lawyers and liberals ... attacked us for proposing measures that the evidence, apparently, showed did not work. It was a good thing for us politically that sociologists, criminologists, and defense lawyers were and are all held in lower repute than conservative politicians for the voting public. Politically it helped us tremendously to be attacked by this coalition of university types. So we never really had to engage properly in the question of what evidence actually shows about various approaches to crime. And Canadians who noticed rising rates of youth and violent crime came to the common sense conclusion that whatever was being done to tackle it was not working. (ibid.)

This antipathy toward criminological knowledge has concrete effects. Since taking power in 2006,Canada's Conservative-led federal government has introduced more than 80 criminal justice, sentencing, and corrections reform bills. (1) In 2011, during the first parliamentary session after successfully forming a majority government. the Conservative majority passed 70 percent of the criminal justice-oriented bills, including Bill C-10, an omnibus crime bill that combined amendments from nine separate bills that had failed to pass in previous sessions of Parliament. Legislative reform has continued in recent years. In January 2015 (an election year), the government introduced new sweeping anti-terrorist legislation and signaled the arrival of Criminal Code amendments to allow for life sentences without the chance of parole (Anti-Terrorism Act 2015; see Fine 2015). As described in a letter from the office of Justice Minister Peter Mackay to the Ottawa Citizen, the federal government's legislative agenda aims to "transform the justice system so that it is no longer centered on the welfare of criminals" and instead to refocus it on "the protection of society and the redress of victims"-even if these measures run contrary to research and evidence about the expected outcomes of this policy (Seymour 2015).

The irony of the federal political antipathy toward criminological evidence is that it occurred within a policy context saturated by calls for "evidence-based practices." Although evidence-informed policy reform is now tightly linked to research funding, (2) criminologists are more preoccupied than ever about the gap between criminological research findings and political policy prescriptions. Researchers have long grappled with related issues (Brodeur 1999; Rock 2014). For example, criminologists have tried to address the troublesome nature of criminological knowledge, the role criminology ought to play in public discourse, and the impact of public perceptions and political partisanship on various forms and levels of policy. More recently, various authors have advocated "public criminology" as one particular response to the apparent disconnect between evidence and policy. Advocates of a public criminology typically acknowledge that the politics of crime policy are intrinsically controversial and deeply contested, that criminological "evidence" is always partial and conditional, and that policy prescriptions are often disputed and contingent on epistemological positions (Currie 2007; Garland and Sparks 2000; Tonry and Green 2003; Turner 2013; Uggen and Inderbitzin 2010). …

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