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Jeffrey Simpson

Tories judge evidence of falling rates inadmissible Add to ...

As we have seen many times before, evidence doesn’t count when it comes to the Harper government and crime policy. Emotion apparently does.

Yet again, Statistics Canada reports that crime rates continue to fall across almost all categories of crime. And yet again, the government persists in proceeding with sledgehammer anti-crime policies that are costly, have been tried and abandoned in the United States, and, in some cases, will be counterproductive.

No matter. The Conservatives have this thing about crime. They look hard evidence in the face, deny it and proceed. Their explanation: Most crime is unreported, so the overall rates must be rising.

This logic misses something obvious: If reported crime rates are falling, then unreported ones are, too. But logic and evidence, as we said, don’t drive the government’s criminal justice policy.

Look, crime is a serious matter. Every government has a responsibility to combat it, since the maintenance of order and the protection of citizens are among the state’s highest priorities – for the simple reason that people can’t protect themselves or, if they try (as in buying guns), then more violence is likely to ensue.

There’s an important distinction between being tough on crime and being stupid about crime, a distinction that’s lost in the Conservatives’ “tough on crime” policies.

The problem reasonable critics have in suggesting that Conservative policies are counterproductive is that these people are open sesame for crude attacks that they’re “soft on crime.” It’s this assault that prevents critics of the government from being more outspoken.

The average citizen, especially those who favour the Conservative Party, is told by political leaders that crime is on the rise, and needs to be fought with a bevy of harsh new measures. Then they watch the television news, where “if it bleeds, it leads” dominates local coverage. Then they turn to the tabloid press, or tabloid elements in the so-called serious newspapers, to read endless stories about crime. No wonder some people believe a crime wave is washing over Canada.

Yes, the press will report the latest evidence in a news article or a TV report. It will have done its “duty” to inform the public of overall crime rates. Then it’ll be back to business as usual, with all the context and trends forgotten until the next Statistics Canada report.

This week, Statscan told us that, happily, Canada’s overall crime rate is now the lowest since 1973, and the homicide rate the lowest since 1966. The agency began what it calls a “severity of crime” index in 1996. This year’s rate is the lowest since the index began. There were fewer attempted murders, serious assaults, robberies, car thefts, break-ins and petty thefts than the year before. Only a few crime categories, including drug offences, were up. But about half of these drug offences were for marijuana, hardly the stuff of grave peril to the established order.

These findings don’t matter for the Conservatives. They’re convinced that, for their supporters, the perception exists that crime is rising, or at least is being fought with inadequate measures. Crime is a hot-button issue for the faithful, and one that can be conveniently pushed when the party needs to raise money – because, don’t forget, the other parties are “soft on crime.”

So we’ll have more prisons (the costs of which will be higher than the government suggests) and worse conditions in existing prisons, longer sentences for certain crimes, a weakening of legal protections for juvenile offenders, less rehabilitation and more old-fashioned punishment. And we’ll close down a widely hailed prison farm near Kingston that taught prisoners the discipline of work. Once again, the evidence didn’t matter.

 

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