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.

Aboriginal Incarceration in Canada a National Shame

Emile TherienEmile Therien retired after 18 years as President of the Canada Safety Council in July 2006. He is currently President of PIP – Progress Intelligently Planned, a small enterprise which promotes its services to the non-profit sector, small companies and governments. He is a widely respected spokesperson on public health and safety issues/concerns.


National Aboriginal Day, featuring activities in aboriginal communities across the country, is celebrated on June 21. But as we honour Aboriginal Canadians, we should always keep in mind a great injustice that continues to be perpetuated against them. Incarceration!

First Nations children are more likely to go to jail than to graduate from high school, according to Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

In his 2009 annual report, Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers revealed that the rate for Aboriginal incarceration in 2008 was nine times the national average. Figures for 2007/2008 from Statistics Canada show that Aboriginal adults accounted for 22% of admissions to sentenced custody even though they represent only 3% of the population – and one in three federally sentenced women is Aboriginal.

In view of such a deplorable situation, one must ask why the federal government spends only 2% of its prison budget, which now exceeds $3 billion a year, on Aboriginal programs, while passing new crime legislation, Bill C-10, which will put more First Nations people in prison, where they will spend longer periods of time.

For the record, excluding the provincial system, there are over 14,000 federal offenders in custody and about 8,000 in the community on some form of conditional release. The Correctional Services of Canada (CSC) manages over 50 facilities, employs more than 20,000 people, up from 14,000 in 2005-2006, and has an annual budget of $3-billion, up from $1.6 billion in 2005-2006.

Back in 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada made a ruling in a case involving an Aboriginal defendant, a Mr. Gladue. The ruling called on judges, in sentencing Aboriginal people, to exercise discretion, to be sensitive to the historical plight of Canada’s first nations, and always to consider their heritage. The application of this ruling led to what has become known as Gladue Court for Aboriginal people, and the use of Gladue reports when sentencing offenders.

The overall response by the judiciary to that landmark ruling, as evident by the growing incarceration rate of Aboriginals, has been apathetic and sporadic. Its application varies from one extreme to the other, depending on jurisdiction. Of late, judges, in response to inadequate access to native sentencing, have been reducing prison sentences for serious crimes committed by Aboriginals.

In one case in Windsor, when Ontario Superior Court Justice Renée Pomerance sought a Gladue report, she was told the service was not available in that city. She was told Gladue service was only available in Toronto, Brantford-Hamilton, Waterloo-Wellington, Sarnia, London, and parts of Northern Ontario. She declared that compliance with the law should not depend on the jurisdiction where the case is being heard. The law “applies to offenders across Canada, wherever they may reside and wherever they may be sentenced,” she wrote.

Some jurisdictions across the country evidently considered the edict from the Supreme Court of Canada only to be a suggestion. But in March 2012, the Supreme Court reiterated it was a firm requirement. “Courts must take judicial notice of such matters as the history of colonialism, displacement and residential schools and how that history continues to translate into lower educational attainment, lower incomes higher unemployment, higher rates of substance abuse and suicide and, of course, higher levels of incarceration for Aboriginal Peoples,” Justice Louis LeBel wrote. “Failing to take these circumstances into account would violate the fundamental principle of sentencing.”

One expert, Jonathan Rudin, Program Director of Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, has argued the situation will lead to a standoff between the courts and the government. Is the Gladue Court yet another failed initiative, further evidence of systemic disrespect and contempt for the rights of native Canadians?

An independent report commissioned by the Correctional Investigator and released in the fall of 2009 examined the situation of aboriginal offenders under federal sentence and found it remains unacceptable. The Mann Report, authored by Michelle Mann, titled Good Intentions, Disappointing Results: A Progress Report on Federal Aboriginal Corrections, describes how correctional outcomes for Aboriginal offenders continue to lag significantly behind those of non-Aboriginal offenders on almost every indicator. It found that the federal correctional service is not doing all it can for Aboriginal offenders and their communities.

To address the problems identified in the Mann Report, and to ensure the legal mandate of the Correctional Service is met, the Correctional Investigator called for the appointment of a Deputy Commissioner for Aboriginal Corrections. This idea was dismissed outright by then Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan.

In June 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to Canada’s First Nations for this country’s despicable role in the Indian residential schools, a racist program aimed at assimilation and even today blamed for the high rate of Aboriginal incarceration. His apology at the time seemed genuine.

The Harper government claims it is committed to a policy that makes Aboriginals full members of the national economy. Where are the details of this policy? And – of utmost importance – how does it address the crushing rate of incarceration?

– Emile Therien

Links of interest:

Pizzas, Street Parlours and Prisons

Bill C-38: Nobody voted for this

Protesting Bill C-38

People rallied in Ottawa to protest Bill C-38

Across Canada today, people gathered at the offices of their local Conservative MPs, looking for 13 ‘hero MPs’ who will vote against the omnibus budget bill.

Bill C-38, the 425-page budget bill, contains an unprecedented number of legislative changes. Major changes included in this bill are:

  • Tightening up tax penalties for NGO advocacy
  • Repealing the Environmental Assessment Act and replacing it with a whole new Act.
  • Restricting the length of pipeline environmental assessments.
  • Repealing Canada’s Kyoto commitment.
  • Extending the age at which Canadians will be eligible for old age pensions.
  • Removing the Office of the Inspector General, responsible for CSIS oversight.
  • Eliminating the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development.
  • Eliminating the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.
  • Eliminating the First Nations Statistical Institute.
  • Eliminating the National Council on Welfare.

Here in Ottawa, on behalf of LeadNow, I organized a protest outside the office of Conservative MP John Baird. I was amazed and humbled by the turn-out – probably 120 came out – despite cool weather and threatening rain clouds. We raised our voices in solidarity, telling our government that we are watching and we are deeply concerned.

Protesting Bill C-38

Conservative Budget Anti-Democratic

I brought a long sheet of paper on which people were encouraged to write messages to John Baird (the paper will be delivered to his office this week). Some of the words written there include:

“I don’t feel at home in Canada anymore.”

“Mr. Baird, Canadians care about clean air and water. We do not support the changes in Bill C-38.”

“What about my future?”

“Bill C-38 is pushing me into poverty. You promised to protect me and all seniors.”

“Bill C-38 will affect my life forever.”

“For democracy’s sake, stop this bill.”

One of the things I heard repeatedly from people at today’s rally was that this was the first time they had participated in a protest, but they felt compelled to come out.

“We will not be silent,” said Rev. Frances Deverell of the Canadian Unitarians for Social Justice and the crowd shouted back, “We will not be silent.” Silence is not an option when democracy and our environment are so threatened.

A movement is growing across Canada – and today, it was thrilling to be a part of it.

For more information on Bill C-38, please see the attached pdf which was prepared and shared by Patricia, one of those attending today’s rally. I would also encourage you to check out Black Out Speak Out.

Private Member’s Bills

The many changes to the Canadian Criminal Code legislated by C-10 have not satisfied this government’s hunger for more bills to get ‘tough on crime’,  restrict the rights of offenders, and curtail judicial discretion.

Since the beginning of this current Parliamentary session, 221 private member’s bills  have been introduced in the House.  While these bills cover a wide spectrum of public policy (such as setting standards for cancer screening and increasing public awareness of epilepsy), many of them are focused on crime.

For example, Bill C-394 will create a new criminal offence for recruiting young people into gangs. Another will levy $5,000 fines or jail terms of up to 10 years for wearing a mask or face paint at a riot.  Another will give federal prison officials more authority to dismiss inmate grievances by deeming them “vexatious” or “frivolous”.

Another private member’s bill, loudly applauded by the Conservative benches, will repeal Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act and prevent rights claims based on hate speech from being brought before human rights commissions.

Former executive director of the John Howard Society, Graham Stewart, explains that rules prevent MPs from tabling bills which deal with economic policies. “So crime bills are one of the few areas that private members can propose legislation that will attract national attention. Now that mandatory minimum penalties are accepted by the government and the opposition as an acceptable solution to just about everything, they have become a simple way to respond to sensational incidents where an MP wants to be seen to be doing something in response to an incident in his/her riding.”

For example, Bill C-299, presented by Conservative MP David Wilks, would require mandatory five-year jail terms for kidnappers of minors. David Wilks is a former RCMP officer and mayor of the B.C. town where Kienan Hebert went missing last fall. The issue of kidnapping of minors has also been flooding the news with the recent trial of Michael Rafferty, who was found guilty of first-degree murder, abduction and sexual assault of 8-year-old Tori Stafford.

In response to Bill C-299, retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice John Major urged the Commons justice committee to refrain from further tying judges’ hands. He also warned the the Criminal Code is becoming too complicated as legislation is “patched” together with ad hoc amendments.

Nonetheless, private member’s bills such as C-299 are easy to draft and are almost a sure to gain public support, especially when Rafferty’s case is still so fresh in our minds.

Stewart fears that this type of reactionary legislation is precisely what led to rampant increases in sentences through mandatory minimum sentences in the US. “Someone would champion a new get tough penalty in the face of a sensational event and label anyone who objects as soft on crime,” he says. “Each would leapfrog the former to prove that they were tougher – apparently thought to be a good thing.”

“There are no brakes on this system of vengeance,” Stewart warns. “Private member’s bills are a very serious problem as punishment is turned into the currency of cheap political tricks.”

Mother’s Day

Prison mom

Cali Farmer, 4, hugs her mother Netta Farmer at California Institute for Women state prison in Chino, California May 5, 2012. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Happy Mother’s Day to mothers everywhere, but especially to mothers living in poverty, trying to choose between food and rent, and to mothers in shelters, seeking safety for themselves and their children.

Happy Mother’s Day to mothers behind bars, cut off from their families and children, to the mothers of inmates, living with the stigma and fall-out of their children’s crimes, and to the mothers of victims of crime, too often left with wounds but no voices.

Happy Mother’s Day to mothers coping with mental illness, sickness and disability, and those raising children in hospitals and treatment centres.

Happy Mother’s Day to mothers of missing women, of children on the street, of the lost and the wounded.

The brave, the broken and the battered mothers, the strong, the sick and the scared ones, may we all find strength and love today.

Costs for inmates increase

Canadian inmates will have to pay more for room and board, despite losing the opportunity to receive ‘incentive pay’ in prison job skills programs.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced on Wednesday that Canadian inmates will pay more for room and board, will be charged for the use of telephones, and will not have the same access to purchasing goods.

Rick Osborne, a former inmate who spent 25 years in 13 prisons, likened the changes to slavery. “When you have a guy where he’s working all week and doesn’t have any disposable income at the end, that’s called slavery,” he told CBC news. He added that this will limit the amount of money inmates can send back to their families while increasing opportunities for the black market within prisons.

Toews argues that changes will increase offender accountability and save taxpayers more than $10 million per year.

“The accountability for wrongdoing is the sentence that’s imposed by the courts,” said Catherine Latimer, Executive Director of the John Howard Society of Canada, to the Globe and Mail. “It concerns me that the minister thinks he should be adding to the measure.”

Inmates who work in the corrections job skills program – CORCAN – receive a salary ranging from 50 cents – $2.30 per hour. These low wages will be further reduced as a ‘cost-saving measure’. The opportunity to work over-time to meet production quotas (incentive pay) will be eliminated.

Kim Pate, Executive Director of Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS), told the Globe and Mail that taking away more pay will be especially difficult for female prisoners, 80% of whom are mothers. “They’re mostly sole support for their children before they go to prison, a lot of them,” she said. “Any extra money they do make … they send out to their children in the form of gifts or to provide support for them.”

Reducing the ability of inmates to contribute to and maintain ties with their families will make reintegration more difficult as strong family ties can greatly ease inmates integration back into their communities.

These and other recent trends are indicative of correctional policies that focus almost exclusively on punishment, while losing site of rehabilitation and reintegration. Is the idea that prisoners must suffer for their crimes, even more so then they already are? Should not our correctional facilities strive toward enabling inmates to overcome their past and build a productive future? Yet unfortunately, we are seeing a parade of policies which treat inmates as sub-citizens, undeserving of basic human and constitutional rights.

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EMCP, Carleton University

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