Don’t be fooled by the statistics

CalgarySun.com – Comment/Columnists
July 28, 2010.   By Lorrie Goldstein, QMI Agency

Every year, when Statistics Canada reports on the annual crime rate, I’m reminded of three old sayings.

First, there are lies, damned lies and statistics.

Second, while a river you’re swimming in may have an average depth of one metre, you can still drown in water that’s way over your head.

Third, if you don’t know what you’re looking at, for example if you had to describe an elephant solely by touch, you might mistake it for a snake (trunk), a tree (leg) or a dagger (tusk).

These sayings come to mind regarding media reports of the annual crime statistics. Most outlets, year after year, rewrite the top lines of the Statistics Canada press release.

Words to the effect the year-over-year crime rate is down — this time by 3% in 2009 compared to 2008, and 17% compared to a decade ago.

But that’s like standing in the shallow part of a river and thinking you know everything about the river. Or trying to describe an elephant by touch, while blindfolded.

Given how politicized crime stats are, such reporting also leads, every year, to an illogical, ideologically driven argument made by all the usual “hug-a-thug” suspects.

That is, since “crime is going down” (a) we don’t need to spend as much on policing and prisons and (b) the public is needlessly hysterical about crime because of media sensationalism.

In reality, Statistics Canada’s 2009 crime stats show what they’ve shown for years — our crime rate remains stubbornly, alarmingly high.

Indeed, Canada’s crime rate in 2009 was 131% higher than in 1962, when comparable stats first started being kept. Yes, you read that right.

In 1962, there were 2,771 reported crimes per 100,000 population. In 2009, 6,406 per 100,000.

As for the subcategory of violent crime, the one that most concerns people, Stats-Can this year didn’t provide the 2009 rate in a way we can compare to 1962. (It now compiles all statistics differently.)

I’ve asked Statistics Canada for that figure, and, obligingly, they’re working on it.

But I can tell you Canada’s violent crime rate in 2008 was 321% higher than in 1962 — 932 reported crimes per 100,000 population, compared to 221 per 100,000.

While the 2009 violent crime rate will be slightly lower, it will still, essentially, be triple the 1962 rate.

Clearly, we have an ongoing, serious, crime problem.

But there’s more.

Statistics Canada says this fall it will release 2009 crime victimization data from the General Social Survey, reported every five years.

Here’s what that data indicated when it was last reported, using information compiled up to 2004.

First, progressively fewer Canadians who were crime victims reported those crimes to police — only 34% in 2004 compared to 37% in 1999.

Second, an estimated 92% of sexual assaults were never reported to police, nor 46% of break-ins, 51% of vehicle and parts thefts, 61% of assaults and 54% of robberies.

As for the “crime is going down” claim, here’s the reality. Crime rates rose dramatically through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, then peaked and started to fall slowly in the early ’90s across North America.

No one knows why.

Theories offered to account in part for this phenomenon range from an aging population to more liberal abortion laws, meaning fewer unwanted children.

However, despite continuing small drops in the annual crime rate, they have never returned anywhere near the lower levels of 50 years ago.

Combating crime effectively involves not just law enforcement, but addressing issues such as poverty, unemployment and drug abuse.

That said, the knee-jerk argument from the hug-a-thug crowd that a (slightly) lower annual crime rate automatically means we don’t need as many police or prisons, is akin to arguing a lower mortality rate automatically means we don’t need as many doctors or hospitals.

In other words, it’s painfully simplistic and dumb.

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