An Ottawa-based think tank has concluded that Statistics Canada's evidence that crime rates are falling is false, though the government agency stands by its data.
That dispute cuts to the heart of the divisions between Stephen Harper's government, which is toughening crime laws and expanding prisons, and its opponents, who claim the Conservatives are pushing voters' panic buttons even though the streets are actually getting safer.
"Serious violent crime is increasing," contrary to Statistics Canada's claims, asserts Scott Newark, a former Alberta crown prosecutor who is now a security consultant.
"On the central question of the state's duty to protect citizens from crime and public disorder, Canadians are not as well served as they should be" by Statscan, he concludes.
The 28-page report for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute strongly criticizes Statscan's approach to analyzing crime statistics on several fronts:
» The annual report on crime statistics, known as Juristat, routinely revises crime statistics from previous years upward in any given year's report, making annual crime decreases appear more significant than they are.
» Crime categories are revised from year to year, with specific crimes added or dropped, making it difficult to compare apples with apples.
» Juristat does not attempt to factor in unreported crime, even though a separate Statscan survey shows more people are not bothering to report crimes such as break-ins and automobile thefts because they don't have any confidence the crime will be solved.
» The report fails to identify whether the crime was committed while the offender was out on bail or parole, although the data is available.
"The entire process of collection, analysis and reporting of crime statistics is in urgent need of law-enforcement-led modernization," he states.
Statistics Canada officials rejected the premise of several of Mr. Newark's criticisms, saying that apples-and-apples data was available in its databases for anyone who wanted to compare crime statistics before and after categories were changed.
And while crime statistics are revised as preliminary results are firmed up, the result is statistically insignificant over time, they say.
"What we can say from Statistics Canada's point of view is that violent crime is going down," Julie McAuley, director for the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, said in an interview. "We stand behind our numbers."
Anthony Doob, a nationally respected criminologist at University of Toronto, said the root of the disagreement lies in the fact that gathering accurate data on criminal activity is difficult and that, in certain instances, Mr. Newark "cherry picked" his data.
"There are no perfect measures of crime," he said. Numbers fluctuate from year to year. The most that can be said with certainty, he said, is that crime rates have been gradually declining in Canada since the mid-1990s, though some years are better than others.
Mr. Newark's study plays to core themes of the Conservatives, who have made law and order a fundamental priority of Mr. Harper's government. The Parliamentary Budget Officer has priced the expansion of prisons and the care of an enlarged prison population at $5-billion a year, which Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and NDP Leader Jack Layton say is both wasteful and cruel.
Though recent studies show that crime is not a major concern for most voters, there is a hardening of attitudes toward those convicted of crimes, and the Conservatives are adamant that, under their watch, those who commit serious crimes will do serious times.
Most reports in the Macdonald-Laurier Institute's first year have supported the policies of the Harper government, though Brian Lee Crawley, its managing director, strongly maintains that the institute is non-partisan and has staff, contributors and speakers of all political persuasions. Mr. Newark worked briefly for Stockwell Day in 2006 when he was Minister of Public Safety.
Dastardly deeds and data collection: Crime appears in many shapes and forms
How hard is it to measure crime data? Take this quiz, provided by Prof. Anthony Doob of the University of Toronto:
- Were you a victim of crime in the last month? Probably the answer is no.
- Did you receive any spam e-mails offering you a small fortune in exchange for helping with a bank transaction? If so, you were the victim of attempted fraud.
You may want to rethink the answer to the first question.