Post #236

920 words; 4 minutes to read

Summary: Tough on crime may make good politics but it’s bad policy.  One reason is that most people have committed a crime at some point in their lives, making it impossible to prosecute most of them.

Audio summary by volunteer law student Hannah Lee.

‘Tough on crime’ has long been an effective political slogan, and now we are hearing it again in Canada.  It is a slogan intended to generate anger and fear, which are among the most powerful emotions.  When we are angry or afraid we tend not to think very much, not do these feelings incline people to want to study what the research evidence tells us.

Yet the evidence in criminal justice is pretty clear.  Tough on crime, where that means more policing, more prosecuting and more jail time, is an unsuccessful way to reduce crime, improve public safety, or help victims.  It is a way to waste a lot of public money, though.

Many previous posts on this blog have spoken to this point.  In the coming months we will repost some of them.  Early in 2020 we posted this the following (somewhat edited; the original is here), making the point that many, many people have committed a crime but only a small subset are ever pursued or prosecuted. Who you are may have a lot to do with what you get away with.

Is everyone a criminal? Looks like it…

Most of us think about ‘criminals’ as being a small subset of the population – people who are dangerous and need to be punished, locked up or kept away from the rest of us.  But the evidence shows that criminal behaviour is common, even close to universal.  Most of us have done something that could have resulted in having a criminal record (which about 1 in 8 Canadian adults already have).

Many laws are widely violated

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.

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 that are hardly ever reported or result in a sanction.  Driving while impaired. The more common forms of assault such as getting in a fight.  Shoplifting – with losses of $5 billion per year estimated in Canada.  Falsifying tax information. (At least 20% of Ontario taxpayers admitted to this – that is about 2 million people, way more than the total number of criminal cases in Canada each year.)  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 than the total of all break and enter, yet the latter is much more likely to be prosecuted.

More enforcement is not the answer

This is not an argument for more people to be arrested and charged.  In fact, a huge number of people already come into contact with the criminal justice system.  In 2020-21 there were more than 2 million criminal incidents reported to police in Canada, and 350,000 criminal cases.  Our courts can’t even handle that number, even when about 90% of criminal cases never come to trial.  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 each year.

Some people more likely to be arrested than others

We have lots of evidence from many places that the people who get arrested are often not the most serious criminals, but instead are those who are least knowledgeable about how to avoid getting caught, or who can’t afford proper legal assistance, or those in communities that are the most heavily policed, such as high poverty areas or minorities. 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 laws sometimes.  If we saw a lot of criminal behaviour as an inextricable part of human life, often done by people ‘just like us’, we might respond differently.   Even the police say that crime can’t be stamped out by harsher justice.  Instead we need to find better ways of creating conditions that make crime less common, such as much better supports for people with substance abuse issues.  Victims of crime also need better support, such as restorative justice.

All of that would be a lot more effective and a lot less expensive.  It would be a true ‘tough on crime’ policy!

About this blog: The John Howard Canada blog is intended to support greater public understanding of criminal justice issues.  Blog content does not necessarily represent the views of John Howard Canada.  All blog material may be reproduced freely for any non-profit purpose as long as the source is acknowledged.  We welcome comments (moderated).




Comments are closed here.