Making sense of crime statistics

Crime Rates 2011

Police-reported crime rates, Canada, 1962 to 2011 – Statistics Canada

This week, Statistics Canada released statistics compiled by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics showing that Canada’s crime is at its lowest level in 40 years. Politicians, journalists, pundits and professors quickly responded.

Depending on their point of view, people fault the statistics for failing to consider un-reported crime, or praise them for proving that current crime approaches are working. Some see the drop in crime as a reason to challenge the Conservative plan to expand prisons. While others argue that more still needs to be done to ‘keep criminals off the streets’.

Vic Toews tweets: Crime rate down 6% – shows #CPC tough on crime is working. Rate is still 208% above 1962 levels, more work for our gov’t to do.

Dan Gardner tweets: Some try to pacify Canadians with statistics.” Who said that in 2008? Anyone? That’s right. Stephen Harper.

Whatever your opinion about crime and criminal justice, you’re likely to find someone who can use these statistics to strengthen that view.

So how do we make sense of crime statistics?

Since this Statistics Canada report only includes offences reported to and substantiated by the police, some say the numbers paint an incomplete picture. Irvin Waller, Criminology Professor at Ottawa University, made this argument in an interview the CBC yesterday, pointing out that certain types of crime, especially sexual violence, are under-reported and that surveys which ask people if they have been a victim of crime reveal a higher rate of violence than do the numbers from the police.

But the numbers can be skewed the other way too. For example, Professor Waller noted that domestic violence used to be considered a family matter. When police began treating it more like other types of assault, the rates of reporting this type of crime suddenly spiked. Did this mean there was a surge in domestic violence? Not necessarily. How something is observed can significantly influence how it is reported and understood.

Similarly, these recent statistics show a rise in child pornography and pot possession. But we should be cautious about jumping to the conclusion that these crimes have risen to the same degree that the numbers suggest. Note the legislation that’s been coming out of Ottawa in the last year and see how the government, and subsequently police, are targeting child pornography and cracking down on pot use.

But even if most people will agree that violent crime rates have decreased, the reasons for this decline will be as numerous as pages in an omnibus bill. Have the tough-on-crime approaches been working, or are we seeing the benefits of programs which reintegrate young offenders and target underlying social issues? As John F. Kennedy said, “victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.”

I’d be the last person to say that statistics don’t matter, but this latest report has shown that true understanding of crime and criminal justice requires more than a series of numbers and echos of rhetoric.

So if you can help make sense of the statistics, please add your comments below.

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Youth Justice Programs Lose Funding

When the government says that it is continuing to fund youth justice programs, you might think that’s a good thing.

Except in this case, with this government, ‘continuing to fund’ actually means slashing funding by 20% – a little detail that was omitted from Justice Minister Rob Nicholson’s June 27th news release. Titled ‘Government of Canada announces continued support to youth justice services’, it sounds like a good news story.

It’s not.

The federal government is cutting $35.6 million used to supervise and rehabilitate young offenders. The annual fund of $177.3  has suddenly dropped to $141.7. This move has stunned provincial ministers, social workers and especially those working with youth in conflict with the law.

And while the government is touting the savings made from this cut, reducing rehabilitation efforts doesn’t actually make much financial sense. As Beth Alkenbrack, a youth counsellor in Thunder Bay working to keep at-risk youth out of jails, told the Toronto Star, “It costs less than $10,000 a year to service a youth with me, and if they’re in a youth justice custody facility, it’s going to cost a minimum of $150,000 a year.”

When taken in conjunction with the recently enacted Omnibus Crime Bill, things are looking very grim for youth justice in Canada. Bill C-10 has meant more young people are being sentenced to jail for less severe crimes and for longer times.

Article 40 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child obligates states to use alternatives to jails as much as possible, with detention as a last resort, and to give priority to rehabilitation, reintegration, and correction. Already Bill C-10 violates the Convention. This recent announcement adds to the shameful disregard of the rights of youth, of effective responses to crime, and of basic common sense.

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EMCP, Carleton University

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