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Tom Flanagan

It's no time to be complacent about doing time Add to ...

It has become fashionable among the commentariat to say Canada doesn't need to spend more money on law enforcement and prison construction because crime rates are falling. There is a grain of truth in this, but it is far from the whole story.

According to Statistics Canada, rates for both violent crimes and property crimes have been going down since they peaked in the early 1990s. Overall rates are now comparable to what they were in the late 1970s. That might sound pretty good, but should we be satisfied? Hardly.

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In fact, rates for all crimes went up dramatically for 30 years starting in the early 1960s until they began to decline in the 1990s. The causes for both increase and decrease are much debated, but the facts are hardly in question. Even after recent declines, property crimes are still half again as common as reported in 1962, the beginning of Statistics Canada's modern data series. The rate of violent crime is still four times greater than in 1962. And, contrary to other, more encouraging trends, the rate of violent crime for young people 12 to 17 years old remains at a historic high. We are still living in times of abnormally and unnecessarily high crime rates that undermine trust in civil society.

I'm not delighted about getting older, but it does have the advantage of conferring a longer memory. I can remember what it was like to be a boy in the 1950s, when crime was virtually unknown in the lives of ordinary people. My father drove all over the county in his work but never locked his car. We didn't lock our house unless we went away overnight. I could ride my bike downtown to the Saturday-afternoon movie and leave it unlocked on the curbside. I never saw a bike lock until the 1970s.

The explosion of crime has changed all that. Today, we lock up our bicycles, cars and houses. Parents are afraid to let their children walk to school or play in the park alone. I can't even imagine what my childhood would have been like if we had been so obsessed with security.

Not only are our crime rates still far too high in chronological perspective, they are not as good as we imagine in geographical comparison. We like to think of ourselves as a far more law-abiding society than the Great Satan to the south, but the truth is more complex.

The American reputation for lawlessness derives primarily from its murder rate, which is indeed abnormally high among modern liberal democracies and about three times the Canadian rate. But the elevated murder rate is primarily found among geographically concentrated ethnic minorities. Elsewhere in the United States, murder rates are comparable to or even lower than that in Canada. For example, the murder rate in Lincoln, Neb., and Grand Forks, N.D., is lower than in Regina.

Comparisons of other violent crimes are difficult to make because of differing legal definitions in the two countries (e.g., rape in the United States vs. sexual assault in Canada). But in the field of property crime, where these legal differences are less significant, American and Canadian rates are broadly similar, with the United States sometimes having the advantage. For example, car theft is relatively more common north than south of the border.

This is not to say the United States is a paradise; there is still far too much crime there. But there is also far too much crime in Canada. Both societies still have a lot of work to do to reconstruct the peaceful social order that once existed.

Incapacitation of criminals through imprisonment is a crucial part of the equation. People who can't control their urges have to be restrained to prevent harm to others. Yes, it costs a lot of money. But so what if it costs more to keep a criminal in prison for a year than it does to maintain a soldier in the Canadian Forces or a student at university? The relevant comparison is between the cost of incarceration and the savings to society generated by crime prevention. The cost of crime is so high (estimated at $70-billion annually by Statistics Canada in 2003) that imprisonment of serious and repeat offenders is an excellent investment in purely economic terms - to say nothing of the value of restoring people's faith in justice.

Tom Flanagan is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager.

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