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Sure, crime's on the decline. That doesn't mean we shouldn't fight it Add to ...

It wasn't long after Shawn Beauchamp was released from prison, having served a 40-month term for breaking and entering, assault and robbery, that he was shot to death in Winnipeg's North End. Mr. Beauchamp, 26, was a former gang member apparently trying to go straight. "He wanted to quit the gang," his cousin told the CBC. "But the only way you get out of the gang is in a box."

Mr. Beauchamp was Winnipeg's first homicide victim of 2009. That year, Manitoba's capital would go on to claim the title as Canada's deadliest big city, with a record 32 homicides in the urban area and its suburbs. It also took the crown in 2008, and though the rate dropped last year, the city is already on track to eclipse its previous record: Six people have been killed so far in 2011.

In the debate over the federal government's tough-on-crime bills, the standard response of opponents has been to point to one fact: Crime in Canada is falling. But averages hide a lot of variations. A deeper look at the country's crime statistics reveals a more complex picture - and may help to explain the appeal that a tough-on-crime stance has for the Conservatives and their core voters.

Where is crime highest in Canada? In the West, the Tory heartland. Statistics Canada's crime-severity index, a measure combining the number of offences and their seriousness, shows crime still high in the West. Saskatchewan, the province with the highest overall index score, was roughly twice as crime-ridden as Ontario or Quebec in 2009. Manitoba, which topped the index, had more than twice as much violent crime as Ontario or Quebec.

And the discrepancy is not just East-West. It is also North-South. Crime rates in the United States have been plummeting for two decades, dropping far faster than in Canada. In fact, crime has fallen to such a degree in the U.S. that a comparison of data for the most recent year available, 2009, reveals that some cities in Western Canada are now more dangerous than many in the U.S.

For example, Winnipeg's homicide rate is more than double that of the nearest big U.S. city, Minneapolis-St. Paul. Its rate is higher than Boston's. Higher than San Diego's. It's even slightly higher than New York's, if you include the Big Apple's suburbs.

And Winnipeg is not alone. You're more likely to be murdered in Edmonton than in the much larger cities of San Jose, Calif., Salt Lake City, Utah, or Austin, Tex. The homicide rate in Vancouver is higher than in Portland, Ore., and the same as in neighbouring Seattle. In 2009, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Vancouver had higher homicide rates than almost any city in the Northwestern U.S.

Crime rates are much lower east of Manitoba and, as a result, relative to population, Canada has only about a third as many homicides as the United States. (Homicide is often used as a proxy for crime when doing comparisons because, unlike with other crimes, there are no problems of reporting, definitions or fudging of data.) This is another argument that critics of the Conservative crime strategy repeatedly make: Over all, crime rates are still lower in Canada than in the U.S.

The U.S. comparison may be flattering to Canada, but it's not the ideal benchmark. Why not? Because the U.S. is still the most crime-ridden country in the developed world. Aiming no higher is setting the bar pretty low. (And, as Western Canada shows, sometimes we're not even clearing that hurdle.)

The homicide rate in Canada is higher than that of most industrialized countries, often by wide margins. We have 39 per cent more homicides per capita than Australia, 41 per cent more than the United Kingdom, 50 per cent more than Poland, twice as many as Sweden, three times as many as Norway and nearly four times as many as Japan.

And Canada has no reason to be smug about crime when compared with what could be the best standard of all: Canada. According to Statscan, the crime rate today is more than double what it was in the early 1960s. And the rate of violent crime is more than four times higher. The homicide rate? About a third higher. Yes, crime has been on the decline since the 1990s. But that's only after shooting up over the previous three decades.

All of which doesn't mean that the crime-reduction measures proposed by the Tories are necessarily the right ones. But anyone who claims that the government is going after a problem that doesn't exist - anyone who says, 'Move along, no crime to see here' - isn't telling the truth.

Another argument you hear in the Canadian crime debate: The U.S. experience proves incarceration doesn't reduce crime. A generation ago, the U.S. decided to fight crime by imprisoning more criminals, ending up with more people behind bars than almost any country on Earth. Yet it still has high rates of violent crime. Ergo, imprisonment doesn't work. If anything, imprisonment increases crime. Right?

Maybe not. The American strategy has been exceptionally expensive and has had deeply unpleasant side effects, but when it comes to reducing crime, it appears to have worked, at least somewhat. According to University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, who spent much of his time analyzing crime data before he became famous for co-writing Freakonomics, the sharp increase in the number of Americans in prison and the sharp drop in U.S. crime are closely related. His research says the former helped cause the latter by deterrence and through "incapacitation," a creepy technical term for the fact that someone cannot rob your house while he is locked up in the Big House.

In a 2004 study, Prof. Levitt concluded that the growing number of Americans behind bars was responsible for about one-third of the enormous drop in crime in the 1990s. (Other factors he identified were the hiring of more police, the end of the crack epidemic and, controversially, the legalization of abortion - which ensured that fewer unwanted children were born.)

Many American scholars disagree with Prof. Levitt, and there's a real debate over why crime has fallen in the U.S. It's exactly the kind of serious debate that we should have in Canada. The government hasn't exactly been promoting thoughtful discussion, but neither have its "crime-what-crime?" critics.

Canada's crime problem is hardly an out-of-control epidemic. It's not even a crisis, except in a few places such as Winnipeg. It's a problem that has been trending, slowly, in the right direction. But it's a bit premature to be declaring victory. More than two million crimes were reported to the police in 2009, including 443,000 violent crimes, 205,000 break-ins and 108,000 motor-vehicle thefts. And those figures greatly understate the problem: According to Statscan's most recent survey of victims, only 31 per cent of criminal incidents were reported to police in 2009, down from 37 per cent in 1999.

The numbers sure don't sound like a clarion call to complacency.

Tony Keller, a former editorial page editor of The Globe and Mail, is a Toronto writer.

 

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