Crime and Classism

One law for the rulers and another for the rest of us — wasn’t that supposed to have ended with feudalism?

If a poor person is caught taking a computer or some other piece of property from a federal building, you can bet police will be called and the thief will go before a judge to decide if she/he goes to jail. Yet when a senator who is paid at least $132,000 per year in salary illegally claims many times the value of a stolen computer as a “living expense” they simply have to return the money.

Of course, so-called white-collar crime is generally treated less severely than other forms of illegal activity, which is another way of saying there are different rules for ‘important people’ than the rest of us. If you have high enough status, you can usually buy your way out of crime.

For example when Griffiths Energy recently pled guilty to bribing officials in Chad to gain access to lucrative energy properties, the Calgary-based corporation agreed to pay $10.35 million under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act. But no individual at the privately held company will be pursued criminally. Apparently, you can pay a multi-million dollar bribe to gain access to a poor country’s natural resources and then simply pay some more money when you are caught.

Griffiths’ is only the second significant conviction rendered under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act and no business leader has gone to jail since this legislation came into force in 1999.

In Canada the poor — and indigenous — are much more likely to find themselves locked up (Despite making up only 4% of the general public, 23% of Canada’s federal prison population is aboriginal). This is partly because they lack the resources to adequately fight their cases. But anti-poor and working class bias runs much deeper than an individual’s financial means.

Recently the Canadian Medical Association Journal released a study showing that people on welfare face discrimination when seeking publicly financed health care.

Posing as either a welfare recipient or a bank employee the researchers called 375 family physicians and general practitioners in the Toronto area to book an appointment and ask if the doctor was accepting new patients. “We found that if you were of apparently high socio-economic status, you had a 23 per cent chance of getting an appointment, but if you were of apparently low socio-economic status that dropped to 14 per cent,” said the lead author of the study, Dr. Stephen Hwang.

These biases are deeply rooted in our economic and social system and the last quarter century of ‘free’ market reforms have greatly exacerbated inequities in our society.

In January, Statistics Canada released a study showing that the income of the top 1% of earners has dramatically increased since 1982. The top earners have seen an average pay increase of $91,800 taking their median income to $283,400 a year while the other 99% received an extra $400 over the same period raising their median wage to $28,400.

Over the next decade the number of Canadians worth at least $30 million is expected to swell nearly 35 per cent. According to the Knight Frank report, the number of super wealthy in this country will rise from 4,922 to 6,637 by 2022.

The top 1%, especially the top of the top 0.1%, have benefited from the erosion of Canada’s progressive tax system. Corporate tax rates are at their lowest level in decades and top income tax rates have dropped as well. The super wealthy also benefit from various tax provisions that are biased in favour of wealth holders. The federal government provides anywhere between a 100% and 50% tax exemption on capital gains, which means that those who make their money from investing pay lower tax rates than those who make their money from working.

Is it any surprise that this bias in favour of wealth would also be seen in the treatment of criminality? And, if current economic policy continues, the legal bias is likely to get worse.

Consider this: In a recent story about individuals with tens of millions of dollars in RRSPs the Globe and Mail Report on Business noted:

For those who don’t want to give their money away, there is a radical tax-minimizing step: leave the country. Although it hardly seems fair that Canadians who decamp should get preferential tax treatment, that’s the case when it comes to RRSPs. Those who become non-residents can collapse their plan and pay a 25-per cent tax, far better than the rates near 50 per cent they would pay if they remained in Canada.

What do you think the chances are that the current government will change tax rules that give wealthy RRSP holders a huge incentive to leave the country?  It’s more likely that Harper would ask a Senate committee to investigate. And then a few years from now we’ll learn that five of eight senators on the committee took the opportunity to move to another country, cash out their RRSPs and claim moving expenses.

Yves Engler is the author of 12 books. His latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom?: A People's History of the Canadian Military . Read other articles by Yves.