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A person who only paid attention to the media, whether newspapers or TV or radio, would get the impression that crime in Canada was running amok, virtually unchecked. It is the rare news broadcast that does not feature crime in it, and often as the lead story. Murders are often covered for days or weeks when they occur, and again during trials that may last for weeks. All summer CBC radio featured podcasts about crime on the morning program. Quite a bit of evidence shows that crime is portrayed in the media out of all proportion to its significance as a public issue. Most of that coverage goes to violent or sex crimes, which account for only a very small portion of total crime.
That coverage does matter. Studies in several countries have shown that even as crime rates are decreasing, the general population believes that crime is actually increasing. This is also true in Canada. The result can be a susceptibility to adopting policies that are unneeded and costly, such as stiffer sentences.
It’s therefore very important to look at the data we have on actual crime in Canada. And those numbers show very large declines in crime happening steadily over 30 years.
Reported crime rate is way down
An easily available source for these data is the annual Corrections and Conditional Release statistical analysis.
According to these data, the overall crime rate (incidents reported to police) in Canada has decreased by more than 36% since 1998, from 8,915 per 100,000 people to 6,006 in 2017, or about about 2 million reported incidents for the country as a whole. However that overall figure masks differences in categories. Property crimes feel by 43%, while drug crimes actually increased by 5%,
So is violent crime
People are most concerned about those actions labeled as violent crime, which accounts for about 20% of all reported crime . However violent crime has also fallen sharply over the years, by more than 26% since 2000 to about 1100 per 100,000 people.
These rates also vary quite a bit by geography, with the western provinces and the territories having much higher rates than the eastern part of the country.
Arrests and imprisonment have dropped much less
While crime rates have dropped dramatically, the number of people arrested has dropped much less and the number imprisoned has hardly changed at all. The rate of adults being charged has dropped only 16% over the same 20 years, and those being charged with violent crimes are down only 10%, much less than half the drop in actual crimes. The rate of imprisonment has gone from 123 per 100,000 to 114, or by 7%. It is hard to explain why there should be a much greater drop in reported crime than in arrests or imprisonment.
Another important aspect of these data is that more than 20% of criminal charges in Canada are for what are called ‘administrative offences’, especially violations of bail or parole provisions. In the vast majority of cases, these violations are for conditions set that do not involve criminal behaviour. For example, a person may be charged for breaking a curfew even though he or she did not do anything wrong other than being out after the imposed curfew. In that respect, these charges inflate the perceived level of crime.
Another 10% of court cases in Canada concern each of common assault, driving while impaired, and theft. The serious cases that we hear most about are rare. For example in 2016-17 there were about 500 murder or attempted murder cases in all of Canada – one per 70,000 people.
And although many bemoan the state of young people, in fact there has been a large drop in the number of youths being charged with serious crime as well. The rate of youth charged with property crimes has decreased since 1998 by more than 80%, while the number charged with violent crimes has decreased by 40% since its peak in 2001.
Crime down, costs up, we don’t need more police or jail
What is clear from these data is that Canadians are much safer today than we were 20 years ago. There is less crime and less violent crime. At the same time, spending on the correctional (jail and prison) system has gone up sharply. Including both federal and provincial costs, spending in this area was nearly $5 billion in 2016-7, an increase of $1.2 billion over the previous ten years. Experience in the US and elsewhere shows that reducing the numbers of people charged and jailed can save large amounts of money even as crime rates continue to fall.
Canadians should not be fooled by calls during this election to spend more money on police and jail. We could use those resources for much better purposes.