Candidates still believe crime pays

Posted on October 6, 2008 in Child & Family Debates, Equality Debates – news/election_2008 – Candidates still believe crime pays: Play on public’s concerns to win votes
Published: Monday, October 06, 2008. Shannon Kari

It has become a Canadian election campaign staple that politicians will tell the public the justice system is broken and changes are needed to crack down on crime, even when the crime rate is falling.

This year is no different.

The Liberals want to make it harder for young offenders to be granted bail, the NDP is calling for hiring more police and classifying auto theft as a violent offence. The Green party wants a crackdown on white collar criminals and the Bloc Quebecois says changes are needed to make it more difficult for convicted criminals to be granted parole.

The contest to be seen as the “tough on crime” party appears to have been won by the Conservatives with their promises of longer prison terms for young offenders and reducing the availability of conditional sentences.

“Stephen Harper has beaten them to the punch,” said criminologist Jane Sprott, a professor at Ryerson University in Toronto.

While all the parties may suggest changes are necessary, Ms. Sprott said she is disappointed by the lack of substantive debate about the issue, at a time when the crime rate has been decreasing steadily.

There is a “hostility to evidence” as the public is repeatedly told the justice system is too lenient and that crime is a major societal problem without the data to back up these claims, suggested Ms. Sprott.

In fact, the overall crime rate is at its lowest point in 25 years and it declined again in 2007. Violent crime has decreased steadily for the past 15 years and even automobile thefts have dropped in the past decade. The overall youth crime rate has declined for several years and the violent crime rate has been stable, according to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics.

The drop in crime has not put a dent in police budgets. Nearly all major Canadian city police departments have been granted significant increases in recent years.

The net operating budget of the Vancouver Police Department has increased by 20% since 2003.

The operating budget of the Toronto Police Service rose by 24% between 2003 and 2007. Nearly 90% of its costs went to salaries and benefits.

Nick Bala, a law professor at Queen’s University in Kingston who specializes in youth justice issues, said he is not surprised the strategy of Mr. Harper has been successful.

“Playing on people’s fears gets you elected,” especially with respect to young offenders, said Mr. Bala. “Youth crime gets a disproportionate amount of media space because it is more sensational,” he said.

The most extreme cases are presented as the norm, when they are the exception, said Mr. Bala.

Promising longer prison terms is easier than telling the public that youth crime is a complex issue that involves more than the justice system. “It is not a quick fix. But you don’t get elected saying that,” Mr. Bala said.

The Conservatives are promising “enhanced youth sentences” for a range of violent offences and are promising changes that would no longer protect the identity of violent youth criminals.

However, longer sentences for serious crimes are already available under the Youth Criminal Justice Act if the Crown convinces the court to sentence an offender as an adult. This would also lift a publication ban on the name of the defendant. As well, a court can order a youth to serve his sentence in a penitentiary with adults.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled this spring that the onus is on the Crown to show why a youth should be named and sentenced as an adult, but the decision did not restrict adult sentences.

While some media reports have suggested the Conservatives want to lower the age where a youth could receive adult punishment, this provision has been in place since the enactment of the Juvenile Delinquent Act in the early 20th century.

“Since 1908 we have been able to give adult sentences to 14-year-olds. There is no problem in law,” said Ms. Sprott, who added that another misconception is the belief the YJCA is aimed at coddling the offender. Its main focus is “based on proportional punishment to the seriousness of the offence” she said. What has changed is an attempt to reduce the number of young people taken into custody for minor offences, said Ms. Sprott.

Homicide, attempted murder, sexual assault, robbery and serious assaults combined make up less than 13% of all youth offences in Canada. The majority of crimes are property-related.

Statistics that show overall crime and youth crime is declining or stable are based on data collected by police, noted Ms. Sprott. “Are we saying police are part of the liberal bias?” she asked.

The promised reduction by the Conservatives in the availability of conditional sentences comes even though only 4% of convicted adult offenders received house arrest in 2006-07. Conditional sentences are only granted to people convicted of crimes where a judge would otherwise impose a sentence of less than two years in jail.

The measures were enacted in 1996 as a “middle ground” for offenders who are not a threat to the community, explained Greg Lafontaine, a Toronto defence lawyer. Instead of probation, a conditional sentence is used to put more restrictions on an offender, short of placing the person in custody.

Without this option he said it will be “all or nothing” with some people being sent to provincial jails, while others plead guilty to lesser offences and receive probation. A $40 sale of crack cocaine by an addict to feed his habit, or a husband convicted of throwing a spoon at his wife, are examples of offences where house arrest would no longer be available.

There is no evidence of people committing serious crimes while under house arrest, stated Mr. Lafontaine.

“Where is their Willie Horton of conditional sentences? They don’t have one,” he said in reference to the convicted murderer who committed armed robbery and rape while on a furlough, which was used against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 U. S. presidential election.
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Crime By The Numbers

2006 National crime rate drops to its lowest point in 25 years. Decrease is driven by a drop in non-violent crime. The violent crime rate has remained stable for the past 15 years.

14% decrease in the homicide rate (per population) since 1996

20% decline in motor vehicle theft rate since 1996.

19 Percentage increase in the rate of cannabis possession offences since 1996.

26 Percentage of all youth charges in 2006 classified as violent offences (murder, attempted murder, sexual assault, assault, robber, weapons offences are violent offences).

36 Percentage of youth charges in 2006 that were breaking and entering, auto theft, petty theft or possession of stolen goods.

0.08 Percentage of all youth charges in 2006 that were for the offence of murder or attempted murder.

4 Percentage of criminal trials ending in an acquittal by either judge or jury in 2006/07.

What the federal parties propose on law and order


-will eliminate the possibility of receiving a conditional sentence for another 30 offences in the Criminal Code, including assault with a weapon, trafficking of any amount of crack cocaine, criminal harassment.

-increase the budget of the Youth Gang Prevention Fund to $10-million annually.

-make it easier to deny bail to youths charged with violent offences.

-impose “enhanced youth sentences” for young offenders 14 and older, of up to life for crimes such as first-degree murder (note: young offenders may already receive a life sentence for first-degree

murder and lengthy jail terms for serious offences if the Crown convinces a court to sentence the accused as an adult).


-create a $40-million Gun Violence and Gang Prevention Fund.

-spend $75-million for a “Communities at Risk” program to increase security at religious places of worship, schools and community centres.

-expand the list of prohibited weapons to include military assault rifles.

-unspecified increase in funds for witness protection programs.

-increased talks with U. S. authorities to stop the flow of illegal guns into Canada.


-2,500 more police officers on the street.

-re-classifying auto theft as a violent offence.

-allowing first-degree murder charges for gang related homicides.

-making drive-by shootings and firing at a building indictable offences.

-invest $25-million over the next four years to strengthen witness protection.

-invest $50-million a year for crime prevention strategies.

-give provinces and cities the ability to implement an “absolute ban” on handguns.


-more funding for restorative justice sentencing for first-time non-violent offenders.

-fight the privatization of prisons in Canada.

-require those accused of violent crimes who receive bail, to post actual bail, instead of a deposit against personal or family assets.

-increase penalties for domestic violence.

-require those convicted of white collar crimes to repay “the costs of their misbehaviour” including the cost of the police investigation.


-against changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act to impose longer sentences against young offenders.

-eliminate the eligibility for parole of non-violent offenders after serving one-sixth of their sentence.

-eliminate the standard two-for-one credit for pre-trial custody.

-eliminate statutory release for prisoners who have served two-thirds of their sentence

-make it illegal to wear gang insignias.

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