Tories take credit for drop in crime

In a recent tongue-in-cheek Facebook post, I asked how long it would take before the Canadian government took credit for the annual drop in crime which was reported this week by Statistics Canada.

I didn’t believe any politician would have the effrontery to make such a claim, but Public Safety Minister Vic Toews says that that keeping the bad guys in longer lowers the crime rate.

Reality Check:

  • The government provides no evidence that their get-tough-on-crime policies are responsible for lower rates of crime. They can’t be criticized for making the “correlation does not mean causation” error because their statements are too vague to identify causes.
  • The available evidence from the United States and Canada says that mandatory minimums have not delivered their anticipated returns in public safety[1].
  • A review of the research for the government by the Department of Justice in 2002 shows that incarceration has little or no impact on recidivism[2].
  • A submission by the Canadian Psychological Association to the Senate Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs earlier this year presented research showing that mandatory minimum sentences are expensive, do not reduce crime, and are unjust.
  • Canada’s crime rate has been dropping since the early 1990s, irrespective of the government in power or their particular crime control policies[3].

[1] Fradella, H. F. (2000). Mandatory Minimum Sentences: Arizona’s Ineffective Tool for the Social Control of Driving Under the Influence. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 11(2), 113-135. doi: 10.1177/0887403400011002002

Joan, P. (2011). Beyond the Prison Bubble. Federal Probation, 75(1), 2.

Nsereko, D. D. N. (1999). Minimum sentences and their effect on judicial discretion. Crime Law and Social Change, 31(4), 363-384.

Schlesinger, T. (2011). The Failure of Race Neutral Policies: How Mandatory Terms and Sentencing Enhancements Contribute to Mass Racialized Incarceration. Crime & Delinquency, 57(1), 56-81. doi: 10.1177/0011128708323629

Welsh, B. C., & Farrington, D. P. (2012). Science, politics, and crime prevention: Toward a new crime policy. Journal of Criminal Justice, 40(2), 128-133. doi: 10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2012.01.008

[2] Gabor, T., & Crutcher, N. (2002). Mandatory Minimum Penalties: Their Effects on Crime, Sentencing Disparities, and Justice System Expenditures. 43. Retrieved from

[3] Statistics Canada. (2011). Police-reported crime statistics in Canada, 2011 (Catalogue 85-002-X). Retrieved from


Competing Claims about Crime in Canada

The media has exposed us to competing claims about the state of crime in Canada. It’s not surprising that many Canadians may be a bit confused.

Penitence in the Penitentiary, 1840

Last fall, we heard Stockwell Day talk about high levels of “unreported crime”. He was referring to the 2004 General Social Survey conducted by Stats Canada, a telephone survey which uses random-digit dialing to reach about 24,000 households. Nearly 75% of those households contacted agreed to an interview and their collective responses give us some idea about rates of victimization.

Much was made by Mr. Day about the volume of unreported sexual assaults. However, without some necessary qualifications, the finding that 88% of sexual assaults go unreported to the police is indeed alarming . However, the definition of “sexual assault” is posed to the interviewee as follows:

“During  the past 12 months, has anyone ever touched you against your will in any sexual way? By this I mean anything from unwanted touching or grabbing, to kissing or fondling.”

Unwanted kissing, touching or grabbing is assaultive behaviour, but it’s hardly the stuff which immediately comes to mind when we think of “sex crimes”. This broad definition in the questionnaire may explain why 24% of respondents reported being victims of this behaviour.

Just over half of the respondents who experienced any violent victimization told Stats Canada that they did not report it to police because the incident “was not important enough”. Similar victimization studies from the United States and the UK have consistently shown that the more serious the crime, the more likely it gets reported to the police.

To further muddle the question of “is crime in Canada getting worse?”, the MacDonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) recently enlisted a former Crown prosecutor, Scott Newark, to write a paper about the work of Statistics Canada, specifically the Centre for Justice Statistics and how that agency reports crime trends to Canadians.

One of Newark’s concerns is the Crime Severity Index (CSI) developed by the Centre of Justice Statistics. It was formulated by the Centre in cooperation with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and other “justice partners”. It helps to answer the question, “Is the severity of crime increasing over time?” This new measure indicates that the rate and severity of crime has been decreasing over the past six years.

Newark objects to the “subjective” formula used to calculate the CSI because it depends in part on the sentence given by the judge. While judicial discretion is a reality, sentencing data shows that more severe prison sentences are assigned to more serious crimes, and often lengthy ones. And here’s news for Scott Newark: judges must be subjective which is why they are called “judges”. Even for those offenses where minimum sentences are mandated by law and judges have no discretion, the CSI still shows a declining trend in rate and severity.

What is absent from the mainstream media which has reported on Newark’s paper is the sponsoring organization:  the MacDonald-Laurier Institute. The MLI is a “registered charity” compromised of fiscal conservatives who have a penchant for laissez-faire economics. This “think tank” (read “lobby group”) has deep ideological connections to the privatization of public services, government deregulation, and expanding  free markets.

If this lobby group can convince Canadians that crime is actually on the increase, voter preferences will accumulate for the federal party promising to “get tough on crime” with billions of your dollars to spend on new prison construction.

The Volume and Severity of Crime is Decreasing

Despite the efforts of some interest groups to convince us that crime rates in Canada are getting worse, the data suggest otherwise. For the last year in which complete national crime rate data is available (2007), Statistics Canada reports the following:

  • The 2007 national crime rate reached its lowest point in 30 years. Canadian police services reported a 7% decline in crime, the third consecutive annual decrease.
  • The property crime rate
    dropped by 8% and reached its lowest point since 1969. Break and enters were at their lowest level in 40 years, dropping by 9% in 2007. Likewise, motor vehicle thefts declined by 9%.
  • The violent crime rate fell by 3%, marking its lowest point since 1989. Following increases in most serious violent crimes over the past two years, the 2007 rates of homicide, attempted murder, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, assault with a weapon, forcible confinement and abduction declined or remained stable.
  • The youth crime rate dropped by 2% in 2007, following a 3% increase in 2006. Violent crimes committed by youth remained stable, while declines were seen in most non-violent offences.
  • Police reported 594 homicides in Canada during 2007, 12 fewer than the previous year, resulting in a 3% decrease in the homicide rate (1.80 homicides per 100,000 population). This is the second consecutive decline in the homicide rate and continues the long-term downward trend from its peak in 1975.
  • Canadians are about four times more likely to be killed in a traffic accident and about six times more likely to commit suicide than they are to be a victim of a homicide. Canada’s homicide rate continues to be about one-third that of the United States, but comparable to Australia, New Zealand and many European nations.

Not only are crime rates declining overall, but the severity of offences are decreasing. Statistics Canada has developed a new method for calculating the severity of crime after consulting with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. The index is "designed to measure change in the overall seriousness of crime from one year to the next, as well as relative differences in the seriousness of crime across the country" (p. 6). The measure takes into account changes in volume of crimes and its relative seriousness compared to other crimes. Stats Canada reports:

Comparisons between the overall crime rate and the Crime Severity Index between 1998 and 2007 provide interesting insights into trends in overall police-reported crime … During that period, the crime rate decreased by 15%, while the Crime Severity Index dropped even further (21%). It should be noted that while drugs, traffic offences and Federal Statutes are all excluded from the traditional crime rate, they are included in the Crime Severity Index.

We need to be skeptical of the media and how it reports on crime. (On this topic, see Dan Gardner’s new book, Risk Society: The Science and Politics of Fear). Rob Nicholson, the federal Justice Minister, fans the flames of fear almost every time he opens his mouth to talk about crime. Although the Tories claim to be "tackling crime to build a stronger, safer, better Canada", they are at a loss to explain why crime rates are decreasing without their draconian, get-tough-on-crime policies.