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Although many Canadians don’t seem to believe this – perhaps because so much media coverage is about crime – crime rates in Canada have fallen dramatically over the last 30 years . But that is not just a Canadian phenomenon; in fact, crime rates have been falling in most Western countries over this period according to a paper by University of Minnesota law professor Michael Tonry.
Tonry’s paper provides a wealth of data and many interesting charts on these trends. He reports that from the 1960s through the 1990s, rates of violent and property crimes rose sharply in all ‘wealthy Western countries’. Since then, rates for homicide, burglary, auto theft and other crimes have fallen ‘precipitately’ and rates for many other crimes have also fallen significantly. He argues that patterns of crime do seem fairly consistent across countries. Indeed, the evidence that this is so is ‘overwhelming’.
Long term trends
Moreover, if one considers a longer time frame, rates of the most serious crimes have fallen enormously. For example, according to evidence presented by Tonry, murder rates in most European countries have fallen by 95% over the last two or three centuries. While this may seem a very long time, looking at such long periods of time is the only way to get a sense of the real trends. Comparisons of this year and last year, which appear so often in the media, are not helpful because any overall trend in society will have some bumps in it; that is, even if crime is generally declining, there will be years within that trend that will show an increase, as the charts in Tonry’s article show.
According to Tonry, nobody really knows why crime rates went up in the 1960s and 19070s or why they have dropped so much since then. Many explanations have been offered, but it is hard to gather evidence for any of them after the fact.
Distortions in crime rates
It is important to keep in mind that crime reporting rates can be distorted by various factors, especially public and police attitudes. People are more likely to report crimes when there is more public attention to those crimes, even if the ‘real’ incidence has not changed. People’s ideas about what constitutes acceptable behaviour in areas such as domestic violence or child protection have changed significantly, resulting in more crimes in those areas. For example, charges for child abuse went up dramatically in the 1980s when there was lots of public attention to this issue, even though nobody really thinks that there was less abuse before that. There was just less attention and different attitudes. Hitting a child was considered normal not too long ago; now it is often considered criminal. (in the last twenty years charges for child abuse have declined significantly, something we will discuss in a future post.) In fact, the increasing willingness of people to report certain crimes will result in underestimating how much the overall crime rate is decreasing. Also, some researchers believe that when crime rates drop, police are more willing to charge people for things that would previously have been ignored, also leading to underestimates of real changes in crime.
Ironically, as crime rates have fallen, people have become less and less tolerant of crime, which may be the reason that public attitudes towards people committing crimes have in some ways become harsher even as there are fewer such people. And this often leads to political choices to be ‘tough on crime’ even as the problem is getting less serious. Also, public attitudes lag behind actual events. Tonry points out, as have others, that public attitudes to particular crimes such as alcohol and drug use tend to become most punitive when actual conditions have started to get better.
Crime rates are not much affected by criminal justice
Tonry’s final conclusion is that whatever the explanations for falling crime rates may be, they are not the direct effect either of policing or of punishments. For example, as shown in the chart, crime rates in the US and Canada have followed very similar patterns but U S policies on crime and criminal justice have been very different and much harsher without producing greater improvement.
He argues that “many of the things that governments have done to reduce crime rates in recent decades have been largely epiphenomenal—normatively and politically important, and having major effects on many people’s lives, but pretty much beside the point in terms of crime rates and patterns….it is no longer reasonable even to hypothesize that crime patterns can be explained in terms of punishment policies or imprisonment rates, although many academics, especially economists, try to do so.”
Source: Michael Tonry. 2014. Why Crime Rates Are Falling Throughout the Western World. University of Minnesota Law School. https://scholarship.law.umn.edu/faculty_articles/511/