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Doing time on crime 

Backed by 1,600 hours of research, the city's crime report does a pretty good job making sense of a pretty bad situation.

Donald Clairmont was visibly enjoying himself as hepresented his massive report on crime, violence and public safety to city council last Friday. The gregarious 69-year-old retired sociology professor said he spent about 1,600 hours over the last year-and-a-half on research and writing. "I could have been drinking beer and watching Captain Kangaroo," he joked, "but I loved talking to people, I like the idea of multiple realities." To come up with his 64 recommendations, Clairmont interviewed scores of experts, politicians and activists. He conducted community meetings, commissioned public surveys and sifted through the results of a series of focus-group discussions. He estimates that one out of every 60 adults in HRM contributed directly to his report as he searched for consensus on the best ways to reduce violent crime. That search reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of Clairmont's report. Where he found consensus, his recommendations make sense, but where there is disagreement on contentious issues, Clairmont skates away from badly needed, but controversial, solutions.

His main recommendation is the key to the success or failure of his whole approach. Clairmont says HRM should hire a full-time public safety co-ordinator, reporting directly to the mayor's office. At first glance, it seems like a bland bureaucratic solution to the gritty realities of muggings, gang beatings and drive-by shootings; cracked ribs, broken jaws and blood on the sidewalks. But Clairmont obviously knows that without a city official solely responsible for public safety, his other recommendations will be implemented in a haphazard fashion or slip through the cracks altogether. HRM needs a powerful co-ordinator with a strong staff who can push politicians and officials at all levels of government to get at the root causes of crime. Clairmont identifies them in his report---poverty, shitty housing, addictions and racism. He suggests that the Nova Scotia government follow the lead of other provinces by helping to pay for the new co-ordinator.

Clairmont is also adamant that HRM needs to do more about the crime and violence associated with racism and the poverty that often goes with it. He points out, for example, that in 2005, young African-Nova Scotians accounted for nearly one-quarter of the youths sentenced to custody, a figure way out of proportion to the size of the black population. At the same time, he points out that African-Nova Scotians themselves are frequent victims of crime, a situation he calls "striking and unacceptable." Clairmont blasted the HRM committee on race relations for being ineffective and urged the city to revitalize it. "I'm not black," he said, his voice rising in indignation, "but I know dozens and dozens and dozens of people in the black community who have ideas and want to do things."

Unfortunately, Clairmont's search for consensus seems to have blinded him to the fact that some of our laws are themselves major contributors to crime and violence. The senseless attempt to outlaw so-called illicit drugs has led, as it did with the prohibition of alcohol, to a flourishing criminal underworld and sporadic outbreaks of murder, mayhem and police corruption. Clairmont should have urged HRM to lobby for the decriminalization of drugs as the best way to eliminate the worst effects of the organized drug trade. But instead, he recommends special drug courts that would encourage addicts convicted of crimes to kick their habits instead of doing jail time---a band-aid solution if there ever was one. Similarly, he steers away from urging the decriminalization of the sex trade so that most of it could move indoors where prostitutes can more easily protect themselves from the routine violence they encounter on the streets. Instead, Clairmont lamely recommends that HRM study what other cities have done about street prostitution.

All in all though, Clairmont's report is well worth the $25,000 plus expenses he got paid to produce it. The good professor deserves a grade of B+. Not in the excellent A-range mind you, but pretty good nonetheless.

As part of an ongoing project to monitor violence in Halifax, The Coast is keeping an up to date violence map that covers all the HRM. You can examine it in greater detail by clicking on the link below.

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