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A member of the forensic identification team of the Vancouver Police Department makes his way into a home in March 2011. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
A member of the forensic identification team of the Vancouver Police Department makes his way into a home in March 2011. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

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What are Canadians really afraid of when it comes to crime? Add to ...

Should you ever decide to ask your fellow Canadians why they support getting tough on crime even though crime has been falling for 10 years, you will have the following conversation over and over again (all replies guaranteed verbatim):

Nerdy Interlocutor: Why do you want the government to get tough on crime when the crime rate's already down?

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Tough-on-crime citizen: But the violent crimes are going up.

NI: Actually, they're not.

TOCC: But the rapes, they're all unreported!

NI: Actually, unreported sexual assaults - at least according to the General Social Survey on Victimization, which is how Statistics Canada measures crimes that aren't reported to the police - haven't risen in 10 years.

TOCC: But the really violent criminals, they get out after two or three years.

NI: That actually hardly ever happens. Canada has severe sentences, compared to much of the rest of the world. Has for a long time.

TOCC: Okay, but the judges let them out because they know there isn't any room in the jails.

NI: Not the really violent guys, they don't.

[Pause]/i>

TOCC: Okay, maybe it's not so much in Canada. But people see these violent scenes, people getting beheaded with machetes in other countries. Maybe they think the country should stay the way it is.

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Lots of people labour under these assumptions, with good reason - just not the reasons you may think. Now, a chance has come to sort things out: As of yesterday, crime is an election issue.

Unholstering his arsenal of campaign points on Friday in Toronto, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised Canadians that, in return for the small favour of a majority government, he'll gather up the last 11 crime bills the Conservatives tried to introduce, bundle them and put them through Parliament as an omnibus bill. He would take on organized crime, end house arrest, eliminate pardons and more, all in his majority's first 100 days.

Before that happens, a brief look at some of the moves the Harper government has already made might be in order. It was a crime bill, after all - Bill S-10, one of roughly 60 pieces of crime legislation it has introduced in its time in office - that caused Mr. Harper's government to be found in contempt of Parliament. Another law-and-order bill, the Truth in Sentencing Act, passed last year, is lengthening sentences and filling jails so fast that it alone will double the cost of the federal and provincial penal system in five years, to nearly $10-billion.

While we're at it, we might want to ask ourselves why we seem to feel such a burning itch to be tougher on crime. The crime rate has been dropping for a decade, even though 44 per cent of Canadians think crime rates have risen. The volume of crime reported to police is down 17 per cent over the past 10 years. The crime-severity index, which measures the seriousness of reported crime, is 22 per cent lower than it was in 1999. Violent crime is off 12 per cent since 2000.

But the Conservatives want to put more people in jail, and 62 per cent of Canadians believe longer sentences are the best way to reduce crime. In fact, as we'll see, lengthening sentences has no effect on crime rates. Yet many of us seem to want to be hard and unforgiving anyway. Why?

Fear and trembling

To hear Mr. Harper tell it, when he insists the Conservatives have made Canada safe by putting "real criminals behind bars," you'd think we were all cowering in the corner. But in fact very few people are afraid they personally will be victims of crime.

Statistics Canada's 2009 criminal-victimization survey (of nearly 2,000 Canadians aged 15 and over) found that 93 per cent of us feel "somewhat" or "very" safe from crime, a number that hasn't changed in five years.

Ninety per cent of us feel fine walking alone in the dark. Eighty-three per cent aren't afraid to be at home alone at night. A quarter of the people surveyed actually reported being the victim of a crime in the previous 12 months (theft, most commonly), yet most of them still weren't afraid of criminals.

But that's a dreary survey. To see what I mean in the flesh - and blood - let me take you to booming Abbotsford, B.C., an hour's drive east of Vancouver in the spread-eagled Fraser Valley.

For two years running, in 2008 and 2009, this once-tiny farming town had the highest murder rate of any community in Canada over 100,000 people - 5.22 murders per 100,000 residents. A deeply religious town (more than 80 churches), Abbotsford is also in the riding of former Reform Party MP Randy White, one of the original sheriffs on the law-and-order landscape.

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