Post #175

830 words; 4 minutes to read

Voice summary thanks to volunteer Averi Brailey.

This post is a slightly edited reprint from one posted in the early days of the 2019 federal election.  The election is a time to ask our elected representatives and parties for their views and plans on criminal justice.  Here is an opportunity to redirect resources and attention from failing strategies to more effective ways of dealing with social problems.


Crime and the response to it is often a major issue in elections in Canada.  The reasons for this have little to do with actual levels of crime and much to do with creating political advantage.  Talk of crime creates fear in people.  Fear is a powerful emotion that fuels behaviour and often drowns out other, more thoughtful reactions.  Generating fear has long been an effective political tactic, used by many to motivate people to support a particular party, even when the fears being generated are not realistic.

Criminal justice offers a particularly powerful avenue to engage people’s emotions rather than their reason.  Fear of being the victim of a crime runs very deep in us, much deeper than other risks that are actually more probable and therefore more dangerous.  For example people run far higher risk of being injured in some kind of accident than they do of being the victim of a serious crime, yet almost everyone is more afraid of the latter than of the former.  Just as most people are more afraid of flying than of driving, even though driving is much more dangerous.

Crime also engages emotions of anger and disgust, which are powerful motivators.  Our instinct is to want those who violate the rules of society (or at least some of those rules) to be punished harshly, even though evidence tells us clearly that punishment is a poor way to improve subsequent behaviour. The desire to punish is driven by anger more than it is by its effectiveness.

Media coverage a powerful factor

These tendencies both lead to and are encouraged by absurd amounts of media coverage of crime.  Crimes get reported out of all proportion to their seriousness as issues, and almost all the attention goes to a very small number of the most violent or dramatic crimes.  The result is that ordinary people get a badly distorted picture of the amount and nature of crime in Canada.

The big problem is that Canadians run the risk of supporting expensive and ineffective policies if we vote on the basis of fear of crime.  We have seen in the last twenty years how these fears, made worse by vast amounts of media coverage, have led to policies that cost us billions of dollars each year while actually making almost everyone – victims, the public, those who are accused  and even those who work in the system – worse off.  If we considered instead the current state of knowledge and evidence about criminal justice, we might have very different preferences and make different choices with much better results.  That is why Canada is in urgent need of a much stronger research effort in this field.

Some key questions

Because the political discussion during the election is likely to be full of misinformation, this blog will use the next couple of months to post about issues that are most likely to come up in the pending election.  For example:

– What is the state of crime in Canada?  Are crime rates high? Are they increasing? (Quick answer: Crime rates have decreased dramatically in the last 30 years).

– What about violent crime?  Isn’t that increasing? (Quick answer: No.  Violent crime has also decreased.)

– Wouldn’t harsher punishments deter crime?  (Quick answer: No.  The evidence is clear that harsher sentencing does not deter.  Also that criminal sanction is an expensive and ineffective way to deal with issues such as mental health and addiction.)

– Is bail too easy to get?  (Quick answer: No.  Thousands of people are held in jail unnecessarily because of the way bail is handled.)

– Aren’t too many people being released on bail and parole, only to reoffend?  (Quick answer: The vast majority of people released do not reoffend, and many of those reoffences are actions that would not be a crime for other people, such as violations of a curfew.)

– Why do so many people commit additional crimes?  Why is the recidivism rate so high?  (Quick answer: It isn’t; most people convicted of a crime will never be convicted of another one.  A small number of people account for a large portion of recidivism.)

– Don’t victims of crime deserve the solace of harsh punishment? (Quick answer: Punishment does little or nothing to benefit victims while diverting attention from those actions that would actually help them.)

As other issues arise during the election campaign we will try to address them in posts.

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