900 words; 4 minutes to read

Most of us think about ‘criminals’ as being a small subset of the Canadian population – people who are dangerous and need to be punished, locked up or kept away from the rest of us.  That is the whole idea behind the concept of ‘risk’ discussed in the previous post.

But there is another way to think about crime, which is that much criminal behaviour is common, even close to universal.  In this sense we are all criminals to some degree. The evidence supports this view much more than the previous one.

Many criminal laws are very vague

An online article in 2014 Bloomberg Views argued that “70% of us have done something that could put us in jail” (though 70% is an arbitrary figure; it could easily be higher).  To be sure, some of the prevalence of criminal behaviour is due to the sheer number of laws criminalizing things and to the often vague way in which these laws are written.  For example, “If a doctor gave you a prescription for a common painkiller and your spouse brings it to you as you lie in bed, your spouse is dispensing a controlled substance without a license”.

At a more mundane level, laws on things like loitering or other public offenses can be very broad.  In the COVID pandemic police can now charge people for not being far enough apart from others; many fear that this power will be used primarily against people who are already disproportionately subject to arrest – minorities, the marginalized, homeless people or sex workers.

Many laws are widely violated

But even without unusual or vague laws, illegal behaviour is common.  Many people do things that we know are wrong.  Michael Coyle, a professor in California, provides considerable evidence that many criminal behaviours are extremely widespread.  It’s just that relatively few people are arrested and charged with doing these things.

Consider some of Coyle’s examples: “1 in 5 Americans has been molested…and 1 in 3 couples have engaged in physical violence”.  Even fairly severe violence, such as being hit, kicked, beaten or burned, is relatively common, reported by about 1 in 6 adults in the US. All of those could be crimes – presumably involving many millions of people, very few of whom are ever charged.

In Canada about 30% of adults report having been the victim of some form of child abuse, with physical abuse being by far the most common.  And this does not include psychological abuse or neglect.  Presumably hundreds of thousands of Canadians could have been arrested for such offenses.

Crimes are common but not prosecuted

Then there is illegal drug use.  Recent survey data show that more than half of Canadians have used an illegal drug.  Coyle writes that “According to a 2012 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, over half of the people in every age group born after 1950 said they had used an illicit drug at some time in their lives, primarily marijuana or prescription drugs. That alone comes to about 84 million people, or 37 percent of all people over 20 [in the United States].”

There are many other common crimes, and many of them are hardly ever reported or result in any sanction.  Driving while impaired.  Reckless driving.  The more common forms of sexual assault.  Shoplifting.  Falsifying tax information.  Violating copyright by illegally downloading music or movies.  Using someone else’s Netflix account.  Pilfering supplies from one’s workplace.  Coyle cites evidence that the typical business loses 5% of its gross revenue each year to fraud by people working in or with the company, 87% of whom are never charged.  This is a vastly greater sum being stolen than the total of all robbery through things like break and enter.

More enforcement is not the answer

This is not an argument for more people to be arrested and charged.  Indeed, a huge number of people already come into contact with the criminal justice system.  In 2017-18 there were more than 2 million criminal incidents reported to police in Canada, and 350,000 criminal cases.  Meanwhile the General Social Survey shows that only about 30% of criminal incidents are reported. That suggests there might be 5 or 6 million significant crimes.    Three to 4 million Canadians have a criminal record, and about half a million have been granted a pardon.

Some people more likely to be arrested than others

Coyle cites other evidence from the US that the people who get arrested are often not the most serious criminals, but those who are least knowledgeable about how to commit these actions without getting caught or those in communities that are the most heavily policed, such as high poverty areas.  That would certainly be true for crimes such as illegal drug use, or theft.  And we know the same pattern holds in Canada.  More enforcement will make this problem worse.

The reality is that most of us follow most of the law most of the time, and almost all of us violate some of the (many) criminal laws some of the time.  The answer is not to argue for more policing and more arrests, but for a different attitude to many crimes.  If we saw a lot of criminal behaviour as an inextricable part of human life, often done by people ‘just like us’ – or us – we might react differently.   Crime can’t be ‘stamped out’ by harsher justice.  Instead we need to find better ways of creating conditions that make crime less common but also better support to victims of crime, such as restorative justice. All of that would be a lot more effective and a lot less expensive.




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