Crime figures belie policies

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Thu Jul 22 2010

“Unfortunately, our safe streets and healthy communities are increasingly under threat of gun, gang and drug violence.”

Vic Toews, federal minister of public safety, states this as a self-evident truth on his public website, which boasts that crime-fighting is at the top of the Conservative government’s agenda. And why not? Preying on people’s fears is an easy sell for politicians seeking votes.

But the hard sell isn’t based on hard facts. As the latest Statistics Canada analysis released this week shows, crime rates are going in the opposite direction.

Canada’s crime rate fell 3 per cent last year, and is down 17 per cent compared to a decade ago, according to StatsCan. The Crime Severity Index, a weighted average of all criminal offences reported to police, has dropped 22 per cent from the 1999 level. Toronto’s Crime Severity Index showed a 4 per cent decline, making it the third lowest among Canadian cities.

You wouldn’t know that from the media, which often give undue weight to crime and feed community fears. Public opinion polling consistently shows that Canadians view crime as a top concern. And politicians, particularly in the Harper government, are feeding those fears with a “tough-on-crime” campaign that is compelling judges to hand out longer sentences — and forcing the construction of more prisons.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer reported last month that the bill for Ottawa’s latest prison-building spree will reach $9.5 billion over the next five years. To justify the campaign, and the cost, the Harper government is preying on people’s fears of violent crime. Yet the impetus is entirely ideological, not empirical. Violent crime is a mere fraction of total offences — less than one-quarter of 1 per cent.

StatsCan reports that nearly half of all the offences reported last year were for minor thefts such as shoplifting or public mischief. Violent crime is also down, with guns used in only 15 per cent of robberies, compared to 20 per cent a decade ago. The homicide rate is two-thirds of its peak in the 1970s.

There is no reliable evidence that longer jail terms act as a deterrent to crime. There is every reason to believe more time in prison makes for more hardened criminals.

The Conservatives have made their “Truth in Sentencing Act” a centrepiece of their government. With the Tories under fire these days for trying to neuter the national census, a better idea would be a “Truth in Statistics Act” that would force the government to pay attention to its own data.

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