Unpacking Canada's crime and punishment story

Statistics Canada reported the most recent statistics on crime last month and related that with the most recent drop in the crime rate meant that crime in Canada was at its lowest level in 46 years.  The conservative federal government was quick to claim credit: “These statistics show that our tough-on-crime measures are working,” said Julie Carmichael, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney to the Globe and Mail

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In reality, what causes changes to crime rates is not exactly known, although there are certainly many theories out there, including better technology and even global climate change.  We do know, though, that the trend of downward crime statistics long preceded the conservative government and likely have little to do with their tough-on-crime legislation, according to experts.  On the other hand, the conservative's legislation, such as the Safe Streets and Communities Act passed last year, is expected to have serious human rights implications for Canada's most vulnerable populations.  In the face of dropping crime rates, it makes little sense for a government to pursue expensive and harmful new tough-on-crime measures.

Unpacking crime rates - what causes them, what doesn't - is an imprecise science.  Most likely that is from the fact that there are many factors that affect crime, some within the regulatory scope of government, some not.  For starters, the US Dept. of Justice / FBI lists several variables affecting the volume and type of crime occurring from place to place:

  • Population density and degree of urbanization.
  • Variations in composition of the population, particularly youth concentration.
  • Stability of the population with respect to residents' mobility, commuting patterns, and transient factors.
  • Modes of transportation and highway system.
  • Economic conditions, including median income, poverty level, and job availability.
  • Cultural factors and educational, recreational, and religious characteristics.
  • Family conditions with respect to divorce and family cohesiveness.
  • Climate.
  • Effective strength of law enforcement agencies.
  • Administrative and investigative emphases of law enforcement.
  • Policies of other components of the criminal justice system (i.e., prosecutorial, judicial, correctional, and probational).
  • Citizens' attitudes toward crime.
  • Crime reporting practices of the citizenry.

The DOJ stresses that until one can get a handle on all of these variables, it doesn't make any sense to compare crime rates in one place to another.  So, we might scratch our heads over the fact that Kelowna, BC has the highest crime rate in the country and actually rose in the last measuring period, but that fact likely has little to do with the crime rate in Vancouver, Toronto, or the nation.  Certainly, it would be inaccurate to point to a few locations as examples to justify any policies.

A global decline in crime

The Statscan report highlights that crime rates have been on the steady decline since 1991, long before Stephen Harper took the helm of Steamship Canada.  This trend tracks with a global crime rate decline across the developed world.  In more recent years, overall crime in Canada dropped 26 percent since 2002 and violent crime fell 17 percent in that same period.

What is clear is that, despite a culture of fear mongering amongst those in favour of harsher punishment for offenders, we are living in one of the safest periods in recent history.  Armed robbery has all but disappeared as a crime. Car theft has dropped significantly, attributed to better theft-prevention technology in autos.  Burglaries are down as well, perhaps due to the fact that electronics are so cheap and available, or that more and more homes and businesses have surveillance cameras to catch burglars.  The fact that we have an aging society and that most crimes are committed by younger men is a factor, as is the fact that across the board the police in larger cities are becoming more technologically savvy, using computers to track and analyze crimes.

Despite the long fall of crime rates and the complexity of the cause-and-effect relationship between variables and the crime rate, conservatives will undoubtedly rush to point out the reason behind the drop being the tough-on-crime measures put in place in the United States and Europe in the past twenty years or so and recently introduced in Canada.  The U.S. continues to incarcerate 1 in 100 of its adult population.  However, Germany and the Netherlands, which have reduced their prison populations in recent years, are seeing a reduction in crime rates.  New York reduced its prison population by 25% since 1999, and it is seeing a drop in crime faster than that of many other cities.  If locking people up reduced crime, wouldn't crime rates be increasing when we set them free?

In an article in the July 20th edition of the Economist, the authors write:

Harsh punishments, and in particular long mandatory sentences for certain crimes, increasingly look counterproductive. American prisons are full of old men, many of whom are well past their criminal years, and non-violent drug users, who would be better off in treatment. In California, the pioneer of mandatory sentencing, more than a fifth of prisoners are over 50. To keep each one inside costs taxpayers $47,000 a year (about the same as a place at Stanford University). And because prison stresses punishment rather than rehabilitation, most of what remains of the crime problem is really a recidivism issue. In England and Wales, for example, the number of first-time offenders has fallen by 44% since 2007. The number with more than 15 convictions has risen.

When the federal government introduced Canada's first-ever mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes in the Safe Streets and Communities Act, much of the world, including the incarceration-happy United States, had already begun reversing the social and economic damage caused by similar tough-on-crime policies.  States such as California saw their prisons fill with small-time drug offenders at great financial and social expense and with no visible benefit.  Despite these indicators and many warnings from knowledgeable experts, the federal government moved ahead and passed the controversial Omnibus Crime Bill,  Bill C-10. Frankly, this was a play to the conservative base - a group of Canadians who would rather policies were made on belief and "morality" about crime and criminals than on evidence and reality of what causes crime and who is a "criminal."

A government whose first reaction to the release of statistics by a federal agency is misinformation about the basis for those facts in order to perpetuate a myth about its own policies is a government that is acting undemocratically.  It's a government that knows that if people knew the facts - crime is down, we're safer, society is less-violent, and that has nothing at all to do with tough-on-crime policies - they'd start demanding different policies based on evidence, reason and compassion, not sound-bites and myths.  Shame on the conservative government for lying to us.  Shame on us for letting them get away with it.