950 words; 4 minutes to read
One of the main regular sources of data on criminal justice in Canada is the annual ‘Police Reported Crime’ report. The most recent report was released in the summer of 2021, and covers 2020. Like many statistical reports, it covers a wide range of topics and provides data but little analysis.
This post focuses on the total number of crimes and the composition of crime because these are widely misunderstood by Canadians. In fact, crimes that most people would consider serious or frightening are less frequent than most Canadians think in part because of the way the numbers are reported. The rates also depend on which kinds of crimes get police attention.
Reported crime continues to decline
Consider the overall trend in reported crime rates in Canada. Looking at the chart (https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/210727/cg-a002-png-eng.htm)
shows that this rate rose substantially from 1960 to about 1990, and has fallen by nearly half since then. The inevitable and largely random minor year to year fluctuations are not important in the longer term yet they are often what gets reported.
Yet many people believe that crime is increasing
Despite the steady decline, many Canadians seem convinced that crime is at least as high as ever, if not higher. Perhaps this is because the amount of media coverage of crime is unrelated to how much crime actually occurs – and because media coverage focuses on the worst crimes rather than the most common ones.
Even the headline for this report on Statistics Canada webpage is ‘After five years of increases, police-reported crime in Canada was down in 2020, but incidents of hate crime increased sharply’. Why focus on one category that increased (among dozens of categories it is virtually inevitable that at least one will increase) yet still accounts for a very small number of crimes rather than acknowledging the overall story – that reported crime in Canada has declined enormously over 30 years?
What about unreported crime?
One response is that most crime is not reported, so these official numbers don’t reflect the actual state of things. There is some truth to this claim. Comparing crimes reported to the police with those reported by individuals in the General Social Survey (GSS) suggests that only about 30% of crimes get reported – though this also varies considerably depending on the type of crime. However this would only affect the historical trend if the rate of unreported crimes had actually increased significantly, and that does not appear to be the case.
Reported crime also depends on which areas actually get police attention. Hate crimes may have risen in 2020 in part because there was so much attention to them, leading to more people reporting them and police taking them more seriously. As another example, child pornography crimes were 4 per 100,000 people in 2008 and are now at 29 per 100,000 an increase of 700% in about 12 years. But these numbers must be due mainly to more attention by police rather than to such a huge increase in this crime. The fact that this increase varied greatly across provinces (81% in New Brunswick in one year vs 2% in Ontario) also suggests that the rates are largely artefacts of the degree of police investigation.
Violent crime- not what it might seem
Crimes are reported by police in two main categories – violent and non-violent. There is a kind of assumption that violent crime is worse. However in both categories, a small number of less serious crimes account for a substantial majority of all crimes.
About a quarter of all reported crimes in 2020 were classified as ‘violent’ – nearly half a million incidents. This seems really serious. However well over half of all violent crime was in two categories – about 180,000 reports of assault level 1 (defined as ‘assault that results in little or no physical harm’, and about 80,000 reports of uttering threats, which by definition also involve no actual physical harm. If the threat were carried out they would be charged as a more serious crime.
The next most common is 65,00 assaults that did cause physical harm No other violent crime accounts for as much as 8% of the total in this category, or 2% of all crime. In comparison, homicide, attempted murder and other crimes causing death totaled about 1700 in 202, or about .003 of violent crime and less than a tenth of a percent (.001) of all reported crime. There is really serious crime in Canada, of course, but in very small amounts.
The overall data can be misleading even for something like homicide. The homicide rate among Indigenous males (16.50 homicides per 100,000 population) was 8 times higher than in the male population as a whole. While the rate for Indigenous women is much lower (3.76 per 100,000), this is also 6 times higher than for non-Indigenous females. So Canada’s relatively low murder rate is heavily concentrated in one part of the population; more than 200 of a total of 740 murders in 2020 had Indigenous victims.
Non-violent crime often minor
As for the approximately 1.5 million reported non-violent crimes, 340,000 were for theft under $5000. Nearly 300,000 for mischief, 200,000 for administration of justice (typically minor violations of bail and parole conditions), nearly 140,000 for fraud and about the same for break and enter. These 5 categories account for about 70% of the total. These are crimes that have consequences, of course, but they are hardly the kinds of things that make most people fearful.
A few other points of interest:
– The 2020 property crime rate was the lowest since 1966.
– The rate of motor vehicle theft in Canada was 24% lower in 2020 than a decade earlier,
– The youth crime rate dropped 31% and has been on a long downward trend, declining for over two decades after peaking in 1991
The summary message: Crime does occur in Canada, but public fears about crime rates appear to be largely unfounded, whipped up by media coverage or for political reasons.