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Increasing evidence shows that most people who commit crimes stop doing so as they get older. This finding, called one of the strongest in the whole field of criminal justice, has huge implications for many aspects of the justice system. The findings and implications are well laid out in a short and very important recent article by Karl Hanson , who was for many years a researcher with Public Safety Canada, and who has very deep knowledge of the relevant research.
Hanson points out that while people who commit a crime are more likely than others to commit another one, this finding does not last over time. First, in general more crimes are committed by young people. And secondly, even people who are involved in crime do less of it as they get older. Sp the more years go by, the less likely any person, no matter what their background, is to commit a crime. This counter-intuitive finding is also related to the fact that a large proportion of all crimes are committed by a small proportion of people. A few people are convicted of many crimes; most people are never convicted of a crime, and most people who are convicted are not convicted a second time.
Many Canadians have a criminal record
One in 10 Canadians (which means about one in 8 adults), and one in five adult males in Canada has a criminal record of some kind – something close to 4 million people. This means that on any given block of houses, or in any apartment building there is very likely to be someone with a record. In addition, half a million Canadians have received pardons for various crimes, and very few of them are ever charged with another one.
In the general population – those who have not previously been charged with a crime, somewhere between 1 and 3% will be charged in any given year, with much higher rates among young people. For those with only a youth criminal record, after 5 years their probability of being arrested again is no different from any other person their age. In other words, there is no additional risk to the public associated with their previous crime. For those convicted for the first time between age 18 and 25, it takes on average about 10 years free of charges before their rate drops to that of the rest of the population, because these are the years when people are most likely to be convicted of a crime. Whereas for someone convicted of a first offence at age 40 or later, their risk drops to that of the population after only 5 years offense-free.
Even people considered at the highest risk of committing another crime are less and less likely to do so for each crime-free year. Their risk may never disappear, but it gets steadily lower with time.
Rates even lower for those convicted of sex offences
Hanson also makes the point that these risk rates are even lower for people convicted of a sex offence because, entirely contrary to public opinion, sex offenders are far less likely to reoffend than are people who commit other kinds of crimes. Moreover, many people convicted of a crime are already a very low risk to reoffend based on factors such as background, family status, education and psychological profile.
Public policy on criminal justice, however, does not take account of these findings. Anyone with a criminal record faces lifelong barriers to education, employment, housing, travel, parenting and many other activities of daily life. These barriers can persist as long as the criminal record does, which can be decades or a lifetime, especially given the decreased number of pardons since the Conservatives changed those laws in 2010.
For people convicted of sex offenses there can be additional punishments, such as Section 161 restrictions, the requirements of the sex offender registry, and even more restrictions on some of the other issues already mentioned, such as travel. Hanson writes:” Long after they no longer present any further risk, jurisdictions continue to enforce sexual offense specific restrictions on such individuals. This does not increase public safety.” But it does make people’s lives harder for no reason other than further punishment.
We are unfairly and unnecessarily penalizing people for years and decades, often in severe ways, when those people have already completed whatever punishment they were given and when they present no risk to the public. This seems a basic violation of human rights. These findings offer strong support for the proposal by Senator Kim Pate that criminal records should be automatically expunged after a period of time if the person is not convicted again **.
These findings also call into question the utility of long sentences, and, indeed, much of what happens in Canada’s jails and prisons. There seems little point keeping people in jail, at huge public expense (not to mention the cost to the prisoners and their families) for many years beyond the point at which they are a risk to anyone. The piling on of long sentences or life sentences may satisfy some kind of public thirst for revenge, but it serves no other purpose.
Even more, this finding suggests that jails should operate very differently. “Rather than trying to change “offenders” into something that they are not, effective rehabilitation can be seen as supporting desistance processes that are naturally occurring and already present to some degree. Whether they are aware of it or not, desistance is their future.” Such an approach would transform jails from places where we punish people for things they have done to places where we help people to lead better lives.
Heading into an election in which crime will undoubtedly feature as a major issue, and often in ways that are divorced from the facts, Canadians need to know that we don’t need to become meaner and more vengeful to keep ourselves safe. Indeed, the opposite is the case.