Editor’s Note

The truth about Canadian crime rates
Artwork by Eli Bornowsky

Crime rates have been declining in Canada for decades, as a result of demographics rather than policy initiatives. Here, as in other countries, most crimes are committed by young men, and because we have been producing fewer children of either gender there are not as many young men to commit them. According to Statistics Canada, the crime rate fell by 15 percent between 1998 and 2007, but that’s only part of the story. In 2009, StatsCan introduced an index that measures not only the change in volume of a particular crime, but also its relative seriousness in comparison with others (for example, homicide and rape are assigned higher weights than, say, shoplifting and creating mischief). The index shows that for the same decade, 1998 to 2007, the severity of crime in Canada fell by 21 percent.

Why, then, do so many Canadians believe the situation is getting worse? How is it possible that there were 77,000 fewer crimes in 2008 than the year before — including fewer violent crimes, which account for one in five in Canada — and yet almost half of us continued to believe just the opposite? Troubling in itself, this misconception also infects our attitudes toward the criminal justice system as a whole. Many Canadians conclude that it puts the interests of offenders ahead of those of victims, because they underestimate the severity of our sentencing and overestimate the number of offenders we parole. This is the dark ignorant soil in which take root the reactionary impulses that favour punitive measures such as mandatory minimum sentences over those that promote prevention and rehabilitation.

Misconceptions about crime also corrupt our attitudes toward other social issues, including immigration, as Walrus senior editor Rachel Giese reports in this issue (“Arrival of the Fittest,”). A casual reading of the news leads many of us to believe that immigrants are more likely than native-born Canadians to engage in criminal activities. But, once again, the evidence suggests otherwise. Immigration, Giese writes, actually reduces levels of violence and crime — and for proof one need look no further than Toronto, where fully half the population is born outside Canada and the crime rate has dropped 50 percent since 1991.

The media is often blamed for these disconnects. Sensational reports of gruesome crimes are thought to distort our sense of reality and make us feel — irrationally — unsafe. So, perhaps, does a surfeit of televised police procedurals. But the problem is as much about what the media doesn’t do as about what it does. Just as financial literacy is essential to an understanding of business — how can you say profits are excessive if you haven’t calculated the return on invested capital? — so, too, is a knowledge of basic criminology essential to understanding the proper functioning of the criminal justice system. For instance, the number of murders in a given city in a given year is by itself a meaningless statistic; the relevant metric is the number of homicides per capita. Thus, more people were murdered in Toronto last year than in any city in the country, but you are still more likely to be the victim of a homicide in Regina, Abbotsford, or Trois Rivières, where the incidence of such crimes per hundred thousand population is higher.

So, yes, our media should do more to promote literacy in these matters, but so should our politicians. Instead, we get Stephen Harper’s tough-on-crime agenda, which emphasizes harsher sentencing and parole regulations, policies that will result in higher rates of incarceration and, according to Correctional Services Canada, require an additional 2,500 prison spaces. The government puts the incremental cost at $2 billion, although Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer, believes it will be twice that number, if not more. But at any cost, it’s money wasted, because the evidence suggests that imprisoning more people for longer periods of time will not reduce crime. More disturbing, however, is the spectacle of Canadian politicians appealing to voters by advancing policies that pander to their ignorance. Policies so cynically made dishonour the people who advance them and can only compromise the quality of our criminal justice.
John Macfarlane is the editor and co-publisher of The Walrus.
Eli Bornowsky has been shortlisted three times for the RBC Canadian Painting Competition. His work is currently on display at the Blanket gallery in Vancouver.

7 comment(s)

wewMay 10, 2011 08:55 EST

More distressing is the Harper government's deliberate obfuscation of statistics. They go back to the 60's to show that crime has increased without taking into account the large numbers of acts that are criminal now and were not then. Harassment, for example, makes up 21% of today's crime. Child abuse is now reportable. And the list goes on.

Governments should rule on the best interests of the country and not on promoting a climate of fear. With a majority now, this is bound to get even worse. The following indicates the lengths our current gov't will go to in order to further it's ideology: Feds tell Supreme Court to ignore evidence that Insite works.

JeremyMay 27, 2011 08:18 EST

Great commentary. It would be even better if it had citable sources for those statistics. I think in this day and age of debate and more direct involvement in national discussion, I feel it's important that we we hold ourselves to a high standard of backing our argument with primary source facts.

ChrisMay 27, 2011 08:18 EST

Some wise people once said, \"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.\"

bumfluffMay 27, 2011 08:19 EST

WEW says: "With a majority now, this is bound to get even worse." - did you not read and understand the article? .

BenJuly 13, 2011 11:38 EST

The disconnect here I think is that small-c conservatives have a fundamentally different view of the purpose of the justice system. Liberals tend to think that the primary function of the justice system should be to deter and prevent crime, and rehabilitate criminals. Conservatives on the other hand believe that most criminals are beyond reform. For conservatives, the purpose of keeping a sex offender in jail for as long as possible is not to prevent him from committing the crime again, but to indefinitely deny him the liberties afforded to people who have committed no crime. Above all else conservatives would like to see the justice system as an authority that reflects their moral values, that rewards moral citizens and punishes citizens. The irony is that they want the justice system to have moral authority, while simultaneously claiming that government should be as unobtrusive as possible in the lives of its citizens. There are few things more intrusive on human life than giving government the arbitrary power to decide what is Right and what is Wrong.

Jerry AmernicSeptember 27, 2011 13:32 EST

I took great exception to these comments by John Macfarlane. But of course our criminal justice system puts the rights of offenders ahead of those of victims, who still have virtually no rights at all, and also ahead of the safety of society in general. The crux of the matter is not how many homicides or offenses take place. Besides, no one knows how many crimes remain unreported. The crux of the matter is for society to demonstrate its revulsion for those convicted of serious crimes and to sentence them appropriately. In this country, for a great many crimes, we do not do this. Women who are raped and who manage to successfully prosecute the perpetrator (such women are in the minority) would be abhorred to know how little time, if any, the offender actually serves behind bars. Repeat child molesters are given the kid-gloves treatment by our courts and get back onto the streets to do it again and again. Thus, the revolving door remains left open for repeat violent offenders to do their thing. And they do. The dark ignorant soil which Macfarlane refers to is actually the bleeding-heart left which does not believe in punishing people who break the law.

Tony BorosNovember 07, 2011 18:15 EST

Unreported Crimes? Really? The only circumstance that I can think of where a serious crime would go unreported, would be when a crime is committed by one criminal, against another. Why would anyone not report a serious crime committed against them? I could see someone not bothering to report a petty theft, but when something serious happens to us, most everyone calls the police. Nothing but a cheap excuse to further the Conservative ideological agenda.

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