BY JOHN MACFARLANE
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.