This post is about 700 words and can be read in about 3 minutes.
It’s not easy to find a careful and balanced overview of crime and punishment in Canada, but anyone wanting such an overview should consult Diane Crocker’s Crime in Canada, published by Oxford University Press in 2012. Crocker’s book is a concise, readable, thorough and evidence-based review of main issues in crime. It’s still applicable today and it’s inexpensive!
One of the strengths of the book is the author’s willingness to take on some widely-believed myths about crime in Canada that just aren’t true. In this short post we can only summarize a few interesting findings:
Some key findings
– Public safety in Canada is high and improving. Crime rates have dropped significantly.
– Media portrayals of crime are highly distorting, focusing on big and violent crimes even though these are infrequent, and giving little coverage to the majority of crime, which is non-violent and affects property.
– Reports of ‘waves’ of crime, such as we are currently hearing about murders in Toronto, are generally misleading. Randomness plays a major part in crime. This means that the fact that some months or years have a high number of, say, murders tell us nothing about long-term trends. For example, the mathematical probabilities make it very likely that a city like Toronto will have 5 murders in 1 week approximately once every 18 months, but it is also very possible to have two such weeks very close together again without signalling any trend at all.
– Public attitudes to crime are contradictory and can be strongly affected by recent events as well as by the questions people are asked. People can simultaneously favour both punitive and rehabilitative policies. Public opinion on crime in Canada “cannot simply be characterized as punitive”. In fact, there is high support for measures that push or help people who have committed a crime to take responsibility, get help, and make amends, which suggests plenty of support for restorative justice and restitution.
– Putting more people in jail and keeping them there longer is a failed policy. “Given the body of research on this matter over the past three decades, it seems clear that policies that increase the severity of punishment are expensive – due to the high cost of imprisonment – and have little effect.” Higher security settings are even less effective. Overall, prison “may do more harm than good for a large number of offenders in the long term”. Community sentences tend to have much better outcomes.
– Even though Canada’s Criminal Code states that jail should be a last resort, jail time is given in about 1/3 of criminal cases (2008 data). Moreover, many jail sentences are very short – 30 days or less – raising questions about why such sentences are used at all.
– The operation of Canada’s jails and prisons is problematic in many ways, including lack of attention to the problems (such as drug abuse or mental health) that brought people into the system in the first place.
– Many features of the system, such as parole or probation or registries, are based on future risk, yet can end up punishing people for things they have not actually done. As a result of the focus on risk, these systems have become more restrictive, which makes rehabilitation harder.
Parole, probation and restorative justice
– Public ideas about parole are often quite inaccurate. For example, only a very small number of people on parole commit a serious crime, accounting for a negligible proportion of all crimes, yet these instances often get a huge amount of publicity.
– While most people convicted of a crime are never convicted of another one, some people cycle in and out of the criminal justice system repeatedly. These are the cases where non-criminal interventions could often have powerful effects.
– Specialized courts for things like drug use or domestic violence can have good effects if they follow the growing evidence on effective practices in these settings.
– Restorative justice is highly promising yet not used very much in Canada.
In many cases we just do not have much knowledge of what to do to prevent crime or to deal with people who have serious problems.
One of the main problems in this sector is that governments do not follow the growing evidence on effective policy and practice, often preferring to cater to public moods based on deep-seated emotions and misleading media coverage. If Canada adopted approaches that were better grounded in evidence, as suggested in this book, we would have significantly better results at a significantly lower cost.
Diane Crocker is a criminologist based at St Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.