Here’s the good news, the really good news: Canada’s homicide rate has fallen to its lowest level since 1966.
Here’s the bad news, the really bad news: The federal government acts as if crime were rising. Worse, it proposes measures that have demonstrably failed elsewhere, and will thus fail here.
Homicide rates by no means tell the whole story about crime. But because homicides are more likely to be reported to the police than other crimes, the homicide rate is taken to be what experts call a “social barometer.”
A recent thorough study of homicides by Tina Hotton Mahony of Statistics Canada lays all the facts before Canadians. It’s too bad – indeed, it’s a tragedy – that these sorts of facts have no influence on the Harper government’s expensive and counterproductive, politically motivated “tough on crime” agenda.
Peel back the general statistics and look more closely at homicides. For example, 13 per cent of those accused of homicide in the past decade were suspected of having a mental or developmental disorder. “Tough on crime” measures are hopeless in these cases.
The government stiffens penalties for gun-related offences, even as the number and rate of firearm-related homicides are falling. More people are killed from stabbings and beatings than guns. So why don’t we crack down on knives and baseball bats?
Homicides committed by strangers and criminals – the ones the “tough on crime” measures are supposed to suppress – are already falling dramatically. In the country’s largest cities – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, where the Conservatives have pushed their agenda hardest – the homicide rate is below the national rate. Last year, British Columbia had the lowest homicide rate since the mid-1960s.
Homicide rates in Ontario and Quebec are also falling. Both rates are below the national average, and Quebec’s is also at the lowest level since the mid-1960s. No wonder, then, that the governments of both provinces are annoyed by the Harper government’s crime bills.
Ontario’s beefs seem mostly to be about costs, a complaint understandably shared with other provinces. More criminals in jail mean higher prison costs, which will fall on provinces. Ontario, like others, wants recompense from Ottawa, which has thus far steadfastly refused.
Quebec’s objections are more profound. They were forcefully made this week by Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier. More prison terms lead to more recidivism, he said, accusing the government of ignoring the statistics. “Science is useful. At some point, someone discovered that the Earth is round.”
Alas, this is the government that abolished the long-form census, the method every statistician here and abroad said would produce the most accurate facts. In that file, as in criminal justice and others, it’s a government that either looks simple facts in the face and denies them, or willfully disregards them.
Mr. Fournier’s blast came the day after the country’s ombudsman for prisons warned again of crowding in penitentiaries, a crowding that will intensify as the government’s “tough on crime” bills stuff more people into the same space. Many prisons now experience high rates of double-bunking and other forms of crowding, and the “tough on crime” government and those who support its approach would say that’s great – more crowded prisons are what crooks deserve. It’s also what will make more of them crooks for longer.
A bill now before Parliament will impose mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offences and toughen the youth justice system. These are the very measures against which Mr. Fournier properly inveighed.
Without any of these measures, almost all crime rates in Canada are falling, and not just homicide. The way to keep them falling is not only to insist on excellent police work but also to target policies at troubled areas and to work on the causes of crime, causes often rooted in social dislocation, mental illness and economic conditions.
Canada doesn’t have an epidemic of crime, no matter how much the media play up criminal acts and how often the government talks up the peril. Canada has a challenge of crime, the response to which from this government is almost completely counterproductive.