950 words; 4 minutes to read
Summary: Recent media reports alleging serious problems of rising crime are not consistent with the actual data reported by Statistics Canada.
Major media (such as The Globe and Mail and National Post) have been writing recently about what they call a huge increase in violent crime in Canada, blaming this increase squarely on policies of the federal government. This follows a barrage of uninformed commentary a few months ago about the ‘need’ for more restrictive bail leading to a federal bill that has been widely criticized. It seems likely that this kind of commentary has also made the Liberal government even more reluctant to act on the promises it made about criminal justice when first elected, most of which remain unfulfilled.
The latest salvo of comments are based on the report, Police-Reported Crime In Canada, 2022. (We also posted on the previous edition of this report. Although each edition reports similar data, the highlights identified can change significantly from one year to the next.) The glib conclusions by politicians and the media do not accurately represent the complex and fascinating data in this report. In particular, the Globe editorial makes no mention of poverty or homelessness or Covid, identifying only one factor that ‘caused’ the change – the election of the Liberal in 2015. This even though the trend started in 2013, while the Conservatives were in power. If only government policy had that kind of power and influence!
Data do not support the claim
It is true that police-reported violent crime has increased for several years now, but looking at a 30 year trend line included in the report gives a very different picture.
Crime rates remain relatively low by historical standards, and several kinds of crime have declined greatly – something that gets almost no coverage. Overall crime rates in Canada are still lower than they have been in nearly 50 years, and about 40% lower than they were at the peak in about 1990. But declines in crime are not widely reported, whereas increases are. So it is no surprise that most Canadians think, year after year, that crime is increasing. One can only describe kind of editorial as dishonest because it fails to include necessary context.
What makes up the increase in violent crime? As it turns out, in 2021 about 40% of the increase in violent crime over the last year was accounted for by one category – level 1 sexual assault, which is a sexual assault where there is no physical harm to the victim, such as unwanted touching. Incidences of more serious sexual assault actually declined. The second largest contributing factor was uttering threats. In 2022 the largest increase was extortion.
Crime Severity Index
Statistics Canada also has an indicator called he ‘Crime Severity Index’. This uses the frequency and seriousness of crime to create an index. It is preferable to simply using violent crime because many crimes defined in the Criminal Code as violent, such as level 1 assault or level 1 sexual assault, do not produce as much harm as crimes such as fraud or breaking and entering, which are not defined as violent. But the Crime Severity Index has been approximately stable over the last 8 to 10 years, and actually went down in 2020 and 2021, so it does not tell the story that the Globe or the Post want.
Many variations are likely random
The report is full of other fascinating pieces of information. Crime rates are higher and rose more in rural areas than in urban areas, contrary to the picture most people have. Also rates vary hugely from one place to another. In 2021 shoplifting went up in Winnipeg and St. John’s, but down sharply in Halifax and Edmonton. St John and Moncton, in New Brunswick, have much higher rates of crime severity than do Toronto or Vancouver. Winnipeg’s rate is nearly double that of Toronto. These data also show the importance of rates against numbers. Toronto, because of its population, has the most murders of any Canadian city, but one of the lowest RATES of murders per person among all cities. But since media coverage is of individual crimes, people tend to think Toronto has a higher rate.
Even at the provincial level there were surprising variations. The violent crime index went up by 34% over 10 years in New Brunswick and down by 26% in Quebec. Here is the report’s explanation of the increase in New Brunswick in the previous year: ‘Increase in sexual assault (level 1), as well as sexual violations against children; partially offset by decrease in homicide and robbery.’ Gun crimes were up by 128 in Quebec and by 78 in Manitoba – large increases – but down by 71 in Ontario. Looking at these kinds of details, It is very hard to see any overall pattern.
Some crimes don’t get attention
Although the focus of reporting and political comment has been on violent crime, other crimes have increased quite a bit more in Canada – notably fraud, which is up nearly 75% over 10 years, and hate crimes, up more than 70% in just two years. These crimes also create serious harm but get less attention.
Numbers of crimes are also related to what gets police attention. Human trafficking charges rose steeply when that issue got more attention and what was previously charged as prostitution-related now got this more serious charge). The same is true of child pornography charges, which have been rising steadily as police devote more attention, especially online.
And on a very positive note, youth crime in Canada has been declining steadily for more than 20 years, and is not at historically low rates. But this important fact also does not fit the ‘rising crime’ narrative some want to create.
Selective use of facts to support a preferred narrative is not unique to criminal justice, but it is a major problem. We should expect better of our major media given their claims to be essential to good public debate.
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