A closer look at falling crime statistics

Ken MacQueen explains why the plunge presents a political win-win for the federal government

There is a telling graph published this spring in a report by the Parliamentary Budget Office on the pace criminal justice spending versus the rate of crime. One line shows the constant fall in crime levels in Canada since 2002, while a second line shows the soaring cost of policing, the courts and prisons, which rocketed past $20 billion in 2011-12.  The budget office, a perpetual thorn in the side of the federal Conservative body politic, notes the chart is for “illustrative purposes only. This paper is not policy advice.”

If it were policy advice, rather than just a chart, the thinking might be that our cash-strapped governments—federal, provincial and municipal—could ease up on our massive and growing policing costs. Don’t expect that to happen—no politician at any level, it seems, wants to be labeled “soft on crime.”

On Thursday, Statistics Canada released its annual “police reported” crime statistics for 2012. The news is good: the crime rate fell by three per cent last year, and while that might not seem like much, it’s part of a trend that puts crime at its lowest level since 1972.

Meantime, the “crime severity index”—a recent StatsCan-created measuring system that puts greater weight on serious crimes like murders, robberies or assaults—also fell by three per cent in a year, part of a steady downward slide since 2003. The homicide rate—543 murders in 2012—fell 10 per cent in one year, and now sits at its lowest level since 1966.

A spokesperson for federal Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney was quick to credit the raft of tough-on-crime legislation the Conservatives have tabled since taking power in 2006. Yet the plunge in crime rates began years earlier. Nor is the trend unique to Canada: rates are falling in the U.S. and Britain, as well—two jurisdictions that are now trying to rein in policing costs.

If the federal government is not for turning on its anti-crime crusade—and indications are it isn’t—that’s  because it’s a political win-win for the government. Not only do tougher laws and longer sentences resonate with its core Conservative base, but most of the cost of federal laws are picked up by other levels of government. The federal government may get all the crime-busting headlines, but it pays only 27 per cent of criminal justice costs, notes the Parliamentary Budget Office. The other 73 per cent is handled provincially and locally. Most criminal cases are handled by provincial level courts, for example, where costs are climbing, while federal court costs have dropped.

Still if one puts aside the matter of cost—and tunes out the scary media reports and political rhetoric—Canadians are safer today than they’ve been in decades. And we’re safer in 2012 than a year earlier, with some exceptions. Among the one-year changes:

  • a four-per-cent drop in break-and-enter (a rate three-times lower than 30 years ago);
  • a seven-per-cent drop in vehicle theft (now at a lower rate than 20 years ago);
  • a seven-per-cent drop in the youth crime rate;
  • a three-per-cent drop in the violent crime rate and a five-per-cent drop in the violent crime severity index;
  • an eight-per-cent drop in cannabis possession charges (to 57,429), the first decline since a 41-per-cent rise in such charges under the Conservative government.
  • Major sexual assault, robbery and assaults against police officers also dropped significantly.

Not all the news was good, of course. Extortion, firearm offences and sexual violations against children were among the few violent crimes that increased. Possession and trafficking of cocaine and other drugs increased between two and five per cent. Identity fraud rose five per cent.

There was a scary 91-per-cent jump in terrorism (to 114 reported incidents), but StatsCan says that was largely accounted for by 62 hoax incidents that occurred in Quebec during the student tuition uprising.

Provincially, Saskatchewan reported the largest drop in crime last year, but it still had the highest crime rate, though it pales to the rates in all three territories. New Brunswick and P.E.I., as well as the territories, saw  increases in their crime rates.

Most cities—at least as measured by the broad definition of “census metropolitan areas”—saw declines in their crime rates, and rates of serious crime. Only Moncton, N.B., Kelowna, B.C., Gatineau, Que., and the Ontario cities of Guelph, St. Catharines-Niagara, and Brantford saw increases in their crime severity indexes.

Kelowna topped all metropolitan census areas with the highest crime rate in the country, a six-per-cent increase. Regina, where crime fell 10 per cent, dropped to second spot. Regina continues to have the highest crime severity index.

Toronto reported a seven per cent drop and had the lowest crime rate for the sixth consecutive year. Quebec City had the second lowest crime severity index among major centres.

All things considered, not a bad showing. We’re safer than we were, and safer than most polls suggest we think we are.

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