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.

Advertisements
Homelessness

EMCP, Carleton University

research play

exploring, questioning, challenging: research as play

Artisan Spotlight - a Mineau Media Special Series

A photoblog about artisans in the Outaouais River Region, by Philippe Mineau, owner, Mineau Media

loveOttawa

the big city with small town heart!

Centre of Criminology Library Blog

Critical perspectives on social justice