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

Speech from Budget Bill Rally in Ottawa

Frances Deverell Rev. Frances Deverell is the president of the Canadian Unitarians for Social Justice (CUSJ).

On Saturday, June 2, she joined the Leadnow protest in Ottawa outside Conservative Minister John Baird’s office and delivered a rousing speech to a crowd of over 100.

  

 

C-38 – Anti Democracy, Anti-Environment, Anti Economic Justice

A big thank you to Lead Now for organizing this rally and to Anita Grace for stepping up to be the local contact on the ground. And thank you so much for inviting me to speak on behalf of the Canadian Unitarians For Social Justice. Thanks to all the Unitarians and all the rest of you who came here today to stand in the rain and protest this terrible budget bill. Shall we take a page out of the Occupy Movement and try the human microphone? Yes?

Frances Deverell

Rev. Frances Deverell addressing the June 2 rally in Ottawa.

Mic check. Mic check.
I didn’t want to come out here and stand in the rain for a protest!  Did you?
I came because my heart is broken. This budget bill is a terrible bill for Canada.
I came to stand on guard for Canada.
As a Unitarian minister I want to hold up 3 principles I hold sacred.

The first is democracy. I object to the process of C-38.
An omnibus bill hides the facts. An omnibus bill suppresses debate.
We pay MP’s to examine the details give close scrutiny debate and LISTEN!
Closure gives no time for this.
In a democracy government regulates industry for the benefit of the common good.
This budget fires scientists who study Canada and produce knowledge.
This budget fires librarians, archivists, and statisticians who organize and store and make meaning of knowledge, and who keep our history. It doesn’t want to make decisions or set policy based on knowledge. It doesn’t value who we are.
This budget fires inspectors in all areas. When government abrogates its responsibilitiy of oversight it leaves the fox in charge of the chicken coop. We have more Walkerton’s, Food poisoning, Enbridge leaky pipelines,  and Gulf oil spills.

The second is the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
I believe the earth, the air, the water are sacred.
I believe all species have a right to a place to live.
Gigantic scale mining produces industrialized landscapes that wipe out all life in their path. This trend must stop. It is a false economy.
We must change our ways to live in harmony with the natural world that sustains us and gives us life.
Mr. Harper and Mr. Baird are dismantling our environmental protection, to promote fast tar sands growth. The want to ignore their obligations to consult with First Nations who live and die eating polluted wildlife.
They care nothing for the needs, and well being, of future generations.
This bill changes the face of Canada without even a debate for the sake of greed and profit. This government was elected by 39% of the vote but it wields 100% of the power and gives 61% no respect. One minister can make and change rules with no consultation. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Why are they afraid to talk? Why are they afraid to listen?

Third: I hold justice, equity, and compassion sacred.
Where in this budget do we care for the homeless? Where in this budget do we care for the hungry? Instead, funding for medicare and education is threatened. Our pensions are under attack.
For the first time our children will have less security and well being than we have had. The social safety net that my parent’s generation set up is being dismantled piece by piece.
I stand here today in the rain to stand on guard of Canada.
I call on this government to slow down, slow down, slow down.
Break up this bill. Give us a national debate about the kind of Canada we want.
We want democracy.
We want environmental protection.
We want government oversight of industry.
We want respect and consultation with First Nations.
We want equity and a fair chance for all people and all life.

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.

The Clothesline Project

Kate RexeKate Rexe is a mother, a writer, an advocate, and a seeker of social justice. She has worked for national non-profit organizations in research and policy development for the last decade and would one day like to change the world.

Clothesline project

 

On Sunday, May 27, I attended Ottawa’s Clothesline Project, a project aimed to break the silence about domestic violence in our communities. It was a gorgeous day to be outside, made even more beautiful by the public display of art, compassion, support, and strength of women and girls.

I saw many women and girls who were courageously displaying their own experiences. There were conversations about who we are as women, our vulnerabilities, but also our strengths. There were stories filled with pride and accomplishment, because we as women, sisters, mothers and daughters are often much stronger than we give ourselves and each other credit for. There were memories shared of loved ones who have been lost to violence, and optimism that tomorrow will be a better day.

I attended in part to support the many women I have worked with and grown to love and admire, but also to share my own story. This was this only the second time I’ve shared my experiences of violence in a public way. The first time was at a workshop sponsored by the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres called Kanawayhitowin, or “taking care of each other’s spirit”.

The workshop was for facilitators and those who work with Aboriginal women affected by violence. At the time I was the director of ‘Sisters In Spirit’, a research, education and policy initiative of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) which worked to raise awareness and give strength to the families of nearly 600 missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. As the director, I spoke to a lot of families, worked with communities, and tried to be the best leader and advocate I could. I was humbled by the stories I heard and the courage I saw each time a family member came forward to speak about their experiences. At this workshop I realized that I didn’t need to hide my own experiences in order to be a strong advocate; in fact it is my experiences that make me who I am today and help me understand those who are struggling to escape violent experiences of their past. This is the lesson I will always carry with me, and yesterday I had the chance to share my experiences with the world, without fear of judgment, shame or weakness.

It was wonderful to see representatives from Families of Sisters In Spirit, also attending this event. Families of Sisters In Spirit is a grassroots organization that started up because the government of Canada decided they would no longer fund ‘Sisters In Spirit’. The families and women involved are amazing, not only because of all they have overcome, but because they have helped to create a movement for social change. Bridget Tolley and Sue Martin have lost loved ones to tragedy, but they continue to make a difference for other families who have lost a daughter, mother, sister, cousin, or friend. They are passionate advocates and they spend each day fighting for what they believe in and trying to make a difference for other families who have lost someone they love.

In 2010, NWAC released the last statistics related to missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada (the only source of this data was collected through ‘Sisters In Spirit’) and found that violence experienced by Aboriginal women and girls is not limited to domestic violence; in fact, of the data collected, Aboriginal women and girls were as likely to be killed by a stranger or an acquaintance as they were by an intimate partner. Statistics Canada also reports Aboriginal women’s experience of violence are unlike other women in Canada – Aboriginal women are three times more likely to experience violent victimization, both related to domestic violence, as well as by a stranger or an acquaintance.

Some people saw The Clothesline Project as a sad commentary of the way our society is blind to the violence, which is pervasive and runs deep. While I agree it is shameful that so many women, men, children and families are impacted by violence, I was proud to be there. I saw the caring spirit of community coming forward to say “you are not alone”. Too often I’ve felt alone in my experiences of violence. I felt like a victim. Today I am strong. I am a survivor and I will not hide who I am out of fear or shame. And for those who have not yet reached a place where they can speak out, I hope they will be encouraged by those who did yesterday and that they will know that they are not alone.

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.”

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