Hot! Crime rate fell again in 2010, at lowest level since 1973: StatsCan

WinnipegFreePress.com – canada
Posted: 07/21/2011.   By: Steve Rennie, The Canadian Press/Online Edition – Ottawa

Canada’s crime rate fell last year to its lowest level in nearly four decades — a statistic opposition MPs claim as proof the governing Conservatives need not spend billions on new jails.

But academics say the debate in Ottawa has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with reality, since the rates of crime and incarceration are not actually connected.

So what’s behind the drop? The experts point the finger at shifting demographics.

Their theory goes like this: the number of young people in this country is shrinking. Younger people tend to commit more crimes than older people. So if there are fewer younger people, it follows there will also be less crime.

“Crime stats seemed to peak around 1993 — which, curiously, if you look at the demographics was when the size of that 16-to-24 age cohort peaked as well,” said University of Ottawa criminology professor Ron Melchers.

“And they’ve been dropping ever since for a whole host of reasons that everyone tries to explain. Every police chief says it’s his actions that have caused the crime to drop. Every politician claims that it’s the law they put into place that’s caused it to drop.

“I should get on the bandwagon. Every criminologist should claim something.”

He cited other possible explanations for the decline, such as tougher locks and security on cars and homes to deter thieves, fewer people reporting crimes and, maybe, that Canada has become a more peaceful place over the years.

Indeed, the Canadian Police Association credited its front-line officers’ hard work for the low crime rate. And it warned against looking at the numbers as a reason to cut funding for police.

“Absolutely no one celebrates seeing less crime in Canada than our police men and women, but until the crime numbers get down to zero, we’re not going to stop being tough on crime, nor are we going to stop advocating for the tougher laws and penalties that help us do our job,” said president Tom Stamatakis.

The latest crime figures released Thursday by Statistics Canada show the crime rate continued its 20-year drop last year, dropping five per cent from 2009 and hitting the lowest level since 1973.

The homicide rate was the lowest since 1966, due mainly to a large decrease in British Columbia, where the rate was at an all-time low, although still above the national rate.

The statistics agency said the overall police-reported crime rate is still following a long-term downward curve, despite the alarm bells from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government over the need for tough-on-crime legislation.

The agency said an index which measures the severity of crime fell six per cent in 2010. The crime severity index is at its lowest point since 1998, the first year for which such data are available.

The Conservatives, though, still want to pursue a crime crackdown. In the past they have brushed off the police-reported crime rates, saying many crimes don’t get reported and thus undermine the statistics.

Earlier this year, the Conservatives reluctantly released rudimentary cost estimates for a suite of criminal justice legislation. The total five-year cost of 18 justice bills was listed at $650 million — although the Parliamentary Budget Officer has said the cost of just one of those bills would be several billion for Ottawa alone.

And there’s more to come. The Conservatives say they plan to introduce an omnibus tough-on-crime bill this fall.

“Not only are the costs outrageously high, but as the StatsCan report shows, they are also at odds with the reality of declining crime in Canada,” Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett said Thursday.

“How can the government justify these policies and these expenditures in the face of today’s facts?”

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson wasn’t available for an interview, so it fell to his spokeswoman to shoot back at the Conservatives’ political opponents.

“Unlike the opposition, we do not use statistics as an excuse not to get tough on criminals,” Pamela Stephens said in an email.

“As far as our government is concerned, one victim of crime is still one too many.”

The whole argument is a red herring in Melchers’ mind.

“We’ve had lots of history to look at,” he said.

“There’s no relationship.”

Justin Piche, a PhD candidate at Carleton University who studies federal prisons and government response to crime, agreed.

“The rate of incarceration has a negligible impact on the rate of police-reported crime.”

The decline in crime severity in 2010 was seen virtually across the country, except for increases in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

The majority of the decline was attributed to drops in the numbers of property crimes, such as car theft, theft under 5,000, mischief and break-ins.

But there were also fewer homicides, attempted murders, serious assaults and robberies.

There were increases in some areas, however, including sexual assault, firearms crimes, criminal harassment, child pornography and drug offences.

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