Prime Time Crime

(Published in the National Post Aug  2, 2011)

Let’s be honest about crime

By Scott Newark




On July 20, StatsCan released its 2010 data on crime in Canada. The annual “Police-reported crime statistics” offers an opportunity to analyze crime empirically, so Canadians can understand how well (or not) our justice system is performing, and why. Theoretically it could be an unparalleled source of relevant information for policy enhancements that increase public safety. Unfortunately, once again, anyone reading beyond the report’s introductory “highlights” is left with more questions than answers.

Since its release closely followed revelations of higher spending at the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), the report is especially timely. Unsurprisingly, the CSC spending had prompted accusations that the Harper government’s criminal justice agenda was all about locking people up with no public safety benefits.

The theme of the new report’s highlights is once again the now traditional “Crime is Down” message. It is welcome news that both the combined volume and rate of the most serious violent crimes - homicide, attempted murder, other deaths, and assault, level 3 - declined significantly last year. This decline ironically occurs over a time when the Harper government’s various crime reforms are coming into effect.

A lesser-noted insight from the ever astute Correctional Investigator of Canada, Howard Sapers, was quite precise. He confirms that more people are being kept in custody longer and that the number of criminal gang members kept in custody is also on the rise.

Saper’s observations are substantiated by information from the Parole Board of Canada. It shows that more of the worst and repeat offenders are being held longer without parole, and that increased supervision for those that are released is being imposed. Add to that the long overdue reductions in pre-trial custody credits, which inevitably benefited career and bail-breaching repeat offenders, and the increased number of non-citizen convicted criminals who are actually being removed from Canada, and a pattern of results from these targeted measures may be emerging.

Could it be that denying these persons the opportunity to commit crimes has contributed to the falling number of serious offences? Good question. Unfortunately, it remains a question, because the crime report still doesn’t provide that information.

There have been improvements in explaining what is being reported. Those 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.

These improvements mirror suggestions made last year, when the Macdonald-Laurier Institute published my detailed analysis of 2009 crime statistics. We took special care to focus on contradictory crime “highlights” not emphasized by StatsCan, as well as on the methodology used by the agency to gather, analyze and then report on this gold mine of relevant information. We also made a series of very precise recommendations to improve the accuracy, clarity and relevance of the report. They included the critical need to detail the criminal profile of exactly who was committing specific crimes and to restore longer-term crime comparisons, inexplicably deleted from the report in 2008.

A host of methodology reforms are still needed. As we recommended, these need to be led by the police community, all of whom have expressed an interest in improving the relevance of the report. Chief among these reforms are:

     -  Replacing the subjective and conveniently vague Crime Severity Index with

      objective, charge-based data;

     -  Recording all reported crime and identifying unsolved serious crime;

     -  Adding age and demographic information to crime rate reporting; and

     -  Modifying charge categories to increase relevance.

Finally, the word “highlight” is a subjective concept. What’s StatsCan might find interesting is not necessarily the information of most concern to the general public. Last year saw noticeable increases in reported crimes of assaulting a police officer, possession of child pornography, discharging or pointing a firearm, aggravated sexual assault, breaching court orders, and non-cocaine drug trafficking and cultivation. Also, while the numbers for kidnapping and confinement are down 11% this year, they’re up 80% since 2000. Context matters.

After all, we don’t need to be “tough” or “soft” on crime; we need to be honest about crime, so we can be smart about fighting it. Hopefully, through improved reporting of crime statistics, we are on the road to doing exactly that.

Scott Newark is a former Alberta Crown prosecutor and executive officer of the Canadian Police Association. He is the author of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s recent study Why Canadian Crime Statistics Don’t Add Up: Not The Whole Truth.


Prime Time Crime

Contributing 2011