Less Crime, More Prisons

Why are “tough on crime” advocates ignoring Canada’s crime statistics?

By David Climenhaga

Once upon a time in St. Albert, where I was running for city council in the 2007 election, I was gobsmacked by a question from an unidentified audience member at an all-candidates meeting. I figured I was prepped to the nines for any local issue. But out of the blue and over right field it flew, straight for my head: “Where do you stand,” asked the moderator, the questioner’s crumpled paper in hand, “on the use of crystal meth in our community?”

Say what? My first thought was, “Who the (blank) asked that?” After I recovered the power of speech, I mumbled something about being opposed to a punitive approach to a social, psychological and medical problem. Not because I support drug use, obviously, but because punishment often does more harm than good. Yadda yadda…

Of course, even as I did my best with the gaping electoral pitfall suddenly yawning before me, I suspected I knew who asked the question—or at least had it asked. It wasn’t Prime Minister Stephen Harper or one of his Members of Parliament, but it might as well have been. It was someone without access to the polling results our prime minister sees, but who nevertheless paid attention to conversations in the local coffee shop, and perhaps over the proverbial back fence. Someone who’d figured out intuitively what the PM and his Tories have cottoned on to in a more sophisticated way.

First, that there’s an appetite out there to do something about crime—because while the best evidence suggests that crime rates are falling across Canada, fear of crime among the public is still an issue. So easy points are scored by calling for tougher penalties, more arrests, longer prison terms, mandatory sentences and the like. Second, my questioner understood, as our Conservative government clearly does, that “crime” makes a terrific “wedge issue,” a way to divide voters from a candidate they might support on many other issues—if only they didn’t feel so strongly that “something must be done” about not feeling safe in their community.

In the end, I didn’t win the election, but I don’t regret saying what I did—especially now that crime data reporting is the subject of debate in Canada and since two levels of government have made tough-on-crime laws and massive prison-building programs a national and provincial wedge issue.

Statistics Canada monitors crime at all levels—national, provincial/territorial, metropolitan—using data from police and a set of categories and definitions developed with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. The agency is unequivocal: it says crime is falling.

Back in 2007, not long after the election during which I starting thinking about this issue, StatsCan reported that the crime rate had declined 7 per cent from the previous year. Crime was down in most provinces, including Alberta. Most incidents of violent offences—homicides, attempted murders, robberies—were down too. StatsCan’s 2008 and 2009 reports noted the same trend. In 2010 StatsCan announced that the crime rate had fallen another 5 per cent, and Alberta was again no exception. In fact, the 2010 report said that the crime rate and crime severity were declining faster (by 6 and 8 per cent, respectively) in Alberta than in any other province.

Overall, StatsCan says that Canada’s crime rate has plummeted more than 25 per cent over the past two decades. “The crime rate is now at its lowest level since 1973,” StatsCan announced in 2010. Its 1962–2010 crime rate graph looks remarkably like Mount Everest, with its summit back in 1993. We’re on a steep downslope now, with crime at levels not seen since I was at university in the 1970s and Canada seemed about as safe as any country could be.

Not all crimes fall at the same rate, however, and the rate of some even increased in 2010 from the previous year. Some violent crimes, including firearms offences, criminal harassment, sexual assault and abduction, rose slightly in spite of the overall decline. If StatsCan’s reports are selectively quoted, or broader trends aren’t mentioned in a news story, the public can easily reach wrong conclusions. Edmonton in 2011, for example, had one of the highest murder rates in its history. But Calgary in 2011 had its lowest homicide rate in a decade, and Canada had its lowest since 1966.

Not only is the overall crime rate falling, so too is what StatsCan calls the Crime Severity Index, which in 2010 “reached its lowest point (82.7) since 1998, the first year for which Index data are available.” The CSI takes into account the relative gravity of a crime, since more serious offences (e.g., murder) have little impact on the overall crime rate due to their relatively low volume. The decline in crime severity in 2010 was seen virtually across the country, including in Alberta; the exceptions were Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Some have questioned Statistics Canada’s conclusions. Former Alberta Crown prosecutor Scott Newark, in a 2011 study for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI), generated headlines with his suggestion that Canada’s crime rate may actually be rising. In his report, “Why Canadian Crime Statistics Don’t Add Up: Not the Whole Truth,” Newark wrote that statistics are “invaluable” but that StatsCan doesn’t “ask the right questions in the right way.” Newark argued that the 2009 report contained too little data, that crime categories keep getting revised (making comparisons difficult) and that StatsCan doesn’t identify whether crimes were committed by people on bail or parole. His conclusions have been cited by proponents of Canada’s new tough-on-crime laws.

Toronto criminal lawyer Edward Greenspan and University of Toronto criminologist Anthony Doob responded to Newark in the pages of The Globe and Mail. The problems with Newark’s study, they wrote, was that it compared figures that ought not to have been compared, cited incorrect facts and ignored evidence that the crime rate is—just as StatsCan says—declining. “Crime rates have nothing to do with tougher laws or harsher sentencing,” they concluded. “The fact is that crime rates go up and down. In recent years, they’ve gone down.”

StatsCan says that Canada’s crime rate has fallen more than 25 per cent over the past two decades, that crime is at its lowest level since 1973.

That Newark could reach the opposite conclusion based on the same data isn’t totally surprising. Crime is defined and measured and reported in ever-changing ways. Doob and Greenspan, for example, say that Newark included newly defined offences—criminal harassment and uttering threats, which comprised 22 per cent of “violent offences”—as new incidents of crime, and concluded that the crime rate went up, when instead the category had been expanded to include cases formerly not defined as “violent.”

Data—especially unclear data—can be misread. That’s why challenges such as Newark’s are useful: they help StatsCan refine its methodology. Six months after Newark published his MLI report, StatsCan released its newest crime data. The agency again reported that crime had fallen over the previous year. Newark again took issue with some aspects of the data. But he acknowledged that the agency’s reporting had tightened: “There have been improvements in explaining what’s being reported,” he wrote in the National Post. “These changes include information on the practice of youth diversion, on why and how crime data is retroactively revised, on what’s included in the numbers on ‘impaired driving’ and some increased historical data for youth crime. StatsCan is to be congratulated for these changes, which were implemented in a very short time frame.”

SO our national statistical agency concludes that crime is falling, and its methodology for reaching this conclusion seems to be improving. But given these heartening trends, why in Canada and Alberta are we embarking on a multi-billion-dollar spree of prison building, insisting on long mandatory sentences to fill those prisons and creating other punitive measures that have been shown not to work elsewhere? Simply put, “tough-on-crime” governments either dispute or ignore the facts.

The federal government puts the cost of its planned five-year prison-building boom at a little over $2-billion, almost certainly underestimating the true cost. And this is just the start. Canada’s parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, expects the annual cost of running Canada’s prison system, pegged at about $4.4-billion in 2011, to more than double to $9.5-billion over the life of the Tory prison-building spree, and then to stay that way. He estimates that the elimination of conditional sentences as part of Bill C-10 (The Safe Streets and Communities Act) will raise the average cost per offender from about $2,600 to $41,000 as more cases go to trial.

Nor are federal prisons the only correctional facilities needed now that the Criminal Code has been amended to include longer, mandatory minimum sentences and other punitive approaches to justice. The Alberta government is spending $600-million on a new remand centre on Edmonton’s north side. The centre certainly needed an upgrade—the old one was dangerously overcrowded—but a fourfold expansion (from 734 to 2,808 inmates; now the largest such facility in North America) is harder to justify in an era of falling crime. When the new centre opens in January 2013, roughly a third of its cells are expected to sit empty.

Like its federal counterpart, the Alberta government is also increasing spending on new measures to “get tough” on crime. These will build on efforts such as the Victims Restitution & Compensation Payment Act, which as of 2008 allows the provincial government to seize the property of accused persons found guilty of no crime. Alberta’s 2012–2013 budget projects big spending increases for Alberta Justice (from $500-million to $537-million) and for the Solicitor General’s office (from $685-million to $772-million).

Today more than 1.5 million Americans are in prison (in 1970, fewer than 200,000 Americans were incarcerated). Throw in prisoners in local jails, and more than 2.3 million people—one in every 100 American adults—are behind bars. Are that country’s taxpayers benefiting from its vast prison-industrial gulag? Officials in California and Texas are openly discussing closing prisons and releasing inmates because cash-strapped states simply can’t afford the operating costs. California, for example, intends to release 22,000 non-violent convicts early to save $1-billion annually. Between 2008 and 2010, at least 35 correctional facilities in the US were closed to save money.

Last month, a high-profile group of current and former US law enforcement officials including current and former judges, police officers, special agents and drug investigators wrote the Harper government calling America’s so-called “war on drugs”—which filled its prisons—a “costly failure.” Did Harper pay attention? It appears not. Under Criminal Code changes passed this year, new mandatory minimum sentences will apply to a number of drug and criminal charges. Critics expect these changes to mean less judicial authority, fewer conditional sentences and longer prison terms. In short, more prisoners and potentially a higher crime rate—just in time for all these new prison cells.

Harper’s changes mean less judicial authority and longer prison terms. In short, more prisoners just in time for all those new prison cells.

Of course, nothing is easier than “getting tough” on crime. It’s the lazy man’s answer to poverty. It’s less complicated to throw people in jail than to calm citizens’ unwarranted fears about “rising crime” or to address the social causes of crime, even if jailing people costs more in the long run. Plus, it makes for good politics, keeping the public’s mind off more substantive issues. It also makes for profitable journalism; sensationalism sells newspapers. Wanting revenge is human nature—so what if we end up using jail as a crime college that turns troubled young people into hardened criminals?

The former point—that these new crime laws are really about vengeance, not safer societies—is why the Canadian Bar Association and the John Howard and Elizabeth Fry societies opposed Bill C-10, arguing that it favours a failed incarceration model over rehabilitation and reintegration. Even the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, which supported the bill, acknowledged a need for both “hard” and “soft” approaches. “The reality is we’re not going to arrest our way out of our troubles,” said chief Dale McFee.

The US spends $200-billion a year on prisons—almost as much as Canada’s entire 2007–2008 budget of $234-billion. Of that sum, an estimated $49-billion is the cost of US mandatory sentencing laws alone. Harper’s new “mandatory-minimum” laws seem destined to likewise drive up the cost of justice in Canada. Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty estimates that his province’s new prison costs could top $1-billion.

Put crudely, the more we spend on prisons and prisoners, the less we have for schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, libraries, recreation centres and other infrastructure and services governments provide best (not to mention less money for tax cuts, should that be your thing). If social justice and decency won’t wash with voters, maybe the good old bottom line will.

In the meantime, we’re faced with a government that bases policy decisions on fantasies—dangerous fantasies designed as wedge issues to win elections. Statistics Canada’s data and analysis is as good a measure of crime as we’ve got, and while collection and reporting can always be improved, StatsCan’s conclusions shouldn’t just be ignored. If that’s not enough, the feds seem to want to copy the US’s mistakes, in spite of ample evidence and warnings from high-ranking US officials.

Looking back to that 2007 campaign question, however, I think I might have responded better by appealing to citizens’ basic self interest: their pocketbooks. Even if Stephen Harper doesn’t get it, it’s sinking in south of the border that the prison-industrial complex advocated by the “tough on crime” crowd not only doesn’t work but is too expensive to sustain.

The truth is that wars on crime, like wars in general, seldom work out the way the people who promote them predict. The troops are rarely home by Christmas. Sometimes the enemy wins, as in our never-ending “war on drugs.” And sometimes everybody loses—as likely as not the eventual outcome of Canada’s escalating “war on crime.” #

David Climenhaga is a journalist, author, post-secondary teacher, poet and trade union communicator. He lives in St. Albert.

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