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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

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?

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.


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.


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.

But Abbotsford straddles a long stretch of undefended border, and it's a Tunnel of Love for drug smuggling and gang activity. Pot, meth and E go south; coke, guns and freshly laundered cash come back. Some of Canada's most insouciant crime clans and gangs have operated here. Residents like to boast that back in the day, one in five houses in many parts of Abbotsford was a grow-op - a number the police don't deny. Eight of the nine murders that occurred in 2009 were gang-related. Somebody should write a TV series about the place.

Yet if you imagine Abbotsford as a hideous bullet-pocked hole, you are very wrong: It's a pleasant, friendly, utterly middle-class, suburban city. The parking lots are stuffed with brand new fully loaded $60,000 trucks. Herds of good-looking families roam the sidewalks. The city library is luxurious, bustling - only a brochure pinned to the message board advertising a "support group for people grieving the loss of those who died by homicide" hints at the city's shadow.

No one I meet professes to be alarmed by the city's criminals. In the food court of the local mall, an 89-year-old woman makes a few dubious remarks about seeing East Indians (heavily represented in this part of B.C.) in crime stories, but she says she's never concerned for her own safety. "I just kept my head down and my nose clean."

"I don't think anyone worries about it until it happens to you," her companion, a man in his 70s, adds. He has a Cockney accent like a small tray. "But nowadays with cellphones, you can get ahold of the cops pretty quick."

Then I run into Bill and Pam, a couple who own and operate five long-haul semis. They earn upwards of half-a-million dollars a year for their trouble. Bill is in his 60s, and full of news: Three of his pals have just been sentenced to 60 years in the U.S. for smuggling cannabis. (So it's not surprising that the couple asked me not to print their last name.)

He's been offered the chance to do so many times, and has been tempted. But he likes his freedom too much. "It's so easy to do, so easy to get away with. You can make $75,000 a trip. Seven hockey bags will bring you 50 grand." He guesses the cops catch 10 per cent of what crosses.

Bill's buddy Ted was nabbed with 1,300 kilos under the floor of a truck full of cattle, a messy spot the border guards normally don't care to search. Some smugglers stuff it in PVC pipe, cover it with wood chips, haul it under the city garbage - common knowledge in Abbotsford. But even though meth labs have blown up across the street from where he and Pam were standing, Bill has never "particularly worried" he might be a crime victim.

"Most of the murders are targeted," Pam explains. Her fingers are thick with nice gold rings.

But as personally unthreatened by crime as they say they are, everyone I meet wants the government to be tough on crime. Darshan Singh Dheliwal and his pals consider Stephen Harper "a child" and "not progressive" enough to vote for, but they still think Canada "has to be more like America. Not less than 10 years jail."

Bill isn't a Harper devotee - he's voting Conservative this year for the first time - but he still says things like "if you get 15 years, you should serve 15 years." It's the easiness and showiness of the drug money and the way it beggars traditional notions of work and reward that upset him.

"I just hate seeing all these kids, rolling in and playing Joe Cool because that's the only way you can make it. You can't make it here" - he nods at the mall's fast-food stands - "at $8 an hour. Abbotsford's like New York City now - a city I love, but everybody's trying to sell you something."

What's the antidote? Something disciplined and reliable, like a good hard spanking.

Punishment without crime

If you think this is just socially conservative Abbotsford speaking, go west, to Vancouver South, one of the closely fought middle-class, immigrant-stuffed, formerly Liberal ridings all the candidates have been trying to win over with tough talk. Conservative challenger Wai Young has talked about the "drip, drip, drip" of petty, often-unreported crime. Provincial MLA Kash Heed says crime issues get a lot of attention in the riding.

Yet there's extraordinarily little crime to be found - mostly break-ins (down 7 per cent last year in Vancouver) and stolen cars (down 20 percent). In the pharmacy down the street from the Chong Lee Market, Dan Huzyk, 64, laughs and tells me he can remember only two crimes in the nearly 40 years he has lived here - a break-in, and a "child rapist" caught by his neighbours 20 years ago. He's voting for the Tories anyway. Annie, the market's 40-year-old Korean manager, can't remember any crimes either. But she's familiar with the local community-policing office, just in case.

Constable Wef Fung, a patrol officer in Chinatown here, has his own theories about immigrants' appetites for law-and-order talk. "I think as a people, Asians are particularly prone to protecting our bottom line," he says. "Back in China, the police can sometimes seem corrupt. But because they have different rules, they can do a lot more than we can. So immigrants come here and they're used to cops and officials doing stuff for them."

So Mr. Harper may be filling that bill. In any event, it's becoming clear that what makes people susceptible to tough talk is more complicated than fear. It's also more evasive than facts.

One of the things you see a lot these days when professional criminologists talk about the Harper government is the Twitch - a combination eye-widening/brow-rub that expresses Total Professional Exasperation. At the moment the Twitch is being performed by Rosemary Gartner, an American-born University of Toronto criminologist who happens to be one of the world's leading experts on interpreting crime statistics, a notoriously swampy subject.

Dr. Gartner explains how, back in 1993, a parliamentary committee (dominated by Mulroney Conservatives, no less) counseled restraint in building jails and handing out sentences. "And that was when crime was going up," Dr. Gartner says. "Here we are today, with crime going down, and the Harper people are increasing incarceration." Eye-widen, brow-rub, head-shake, twitch.

Mr. Harper and his parliamentary colleagues can throw as many people as they want into jail, and keep them there for as long as they like. None of it will affect crime rates.

Yes, this is true: Crime rates are not affected by how many people go to jail.

Until recently, the rate at which Canada incarcerated prisoners had been restrained and steady since the 1890s - for more than a century, in other words - at between 80 and 110 adults per 100,000 people. The United States started out where we did, but since the 1980s has almost quadrupled its incarceration rate, to 760 prisoners per 100,000 people, the highest in the world (China runs a distant second).

If it were true that jailing more criminals made society safer from crime, the U.S. should have seen greater rates of decline in its crime than we have. But the fluctuation in the U.S. homicide rate mirrors ours, exactly. Both homicide rates (the American one being consistently about four times ours) peaked in 1975 and both have declined ever since.

The effect is obvious - just not the cause

So incarceration doesn't improve crime rates. Neither do the longer sentences Mr. Harper promises to push through, though there is some evidence they make inmates more likely to re-offend. Neither do mandatory-minimum sentences, also in the works, which can interfere with rehabilitation.

So why has crime dropped? Excellent question. Theories abound. Neil Boyd, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University, credits the aging baby boom. "There were twice as many young men in the population in the 1970s as there are now." Young men commit most crimes.

James Hackler of the University of Victoria thinks "the strongest answer to crime rates is equality of income": Countries such as Scandinavia and Japan, where the ratio between CEO pay and worker pay is smaller than it is here, have lower crime rates.

Another theory points to the birth-control pill and even legalized abortion: Fewer unwanted children equals fewer social misfits.

The phrase you hear most from criminologists is "there are no quick answers." Grisly, high-profile crimes and grossly lenient sentencing get attention, but statistically they're rare: Sentences for major assault, drug trafficking and attempted murder have stayed the same or risen in the past 10 years.

"Everybody wants to be safe," University of Toronto criminologist Anthony Doob observes. "And I think you can't challenge that desire. And it's very comforting to think that Parliament can sit there with a dial and turn it down and automatically lower the crime rate."

But Parliament can't, and has long known it. "Go back 50 years," Dr. Doob says, "there's report after report saying, 'Let's use prison with restraint.'" Again and again - at least 16 times between 1956 and 2003 - knowledgeable and brain-studded parliamentary committees have concluded that where sentences and jail time are concerned, "preference should be given to the least restrictive alternative" (1982) because (1993) "costly repressive measures … fail to deter crime."

So the Harper government's stance defies not just evidence but half a century of Canadian intellectual tradition. To many criminologists, that feels like heresy. "Nobody that I know who has any expertise about these things believes in what the Tories are doing," Simon Fraser's Prof. Boyd says.

Still, its iconoclasm helps explain why Mr. Harper and his colleagues find their anti-crime thrust exciting, new and serious - a genuine reformation of the criminal-justice system's priorities. They have also sold it brilliantly. One of the ways they've done so is, as Harold Albrecht, the Conservative MP for Kitchener-Conestoga, says, "by standing up for victims." That's a lot more effective, politically, than standing up for a criminal's future.

Just before the election call, egged on by the victims of Montreal fraudster Earl Jones, Mr. Harper's government eliminated accelerated parole review (APR). That will keep Mr. Jones in the slammer a little longer. But it will, much more seriously, affect many young, first-time, non-violent offenders (drug charges, break-ins) who will now serve longer sentences and run greater risks of reoffending when they get out (which APR was meant to prevent).

"Being in prison doesn't make you a good citizen," Graham Stewart, the retired director of the John Howard Society, a prisoner-rights organization, explains. "It just makes you a good prisoner."

Ed McIsaac, the national director of policy at John Howard, estimates that axing APR alone will add 400 "bed years" to Canada's prisoner load - which at the average daily cost of $322.51 per federal inmate, is $47-million a year. That's about the same amount Mr. Jones stole from his victims over the course of 25 years.

The irony is that these experts' elite outrage may help fuel the public's embrace of the crime bills. The federal Ministry of Justice has dismissed statistics as "an excuse not to get tough on criminals." Ian Brodie, Stephen Harper's former chief of staff, said at a McGill University forum in 2009 that "every time we proposed amendments to the Criminal Code, sociologists, criminologists, defence lawyers and Liberals attacked us for proposing measures that the evidence apparently showed did not work. Politically it helped us tremendously to be attacked by this coalition of university types."

That's the thing: Tough-on-crime sentiment may be difficult to justify logically, but it is easy to feel. The question is, why has it become seductive to more and more of us?

Souls divided

One reason, of course, is that crime victimizes people, and happens more or less uncontrollably, and always has, and so it scares us - if not personally, then existentially. Crime never, ever disappears. It is our shadow as a society, a source of shame: What if we're responsible for its existence? No one would argue that we shouldn't try to control it, and reduce it whenever and wherever we can, if we can.

But as the evidence shows, crime is also a force unto itself, vast and multi-tentacled, often counter-intuitive. The things that actually reduce crime - sophisticated parole programs, rehabilitation systems, anti-poverty intiatives, education, mental-health centres, retraining (all of which the Tories have supported) - cost money and time, and are not quick or politically easy fixes.

Crime is so vast, worrying and intractable that when someone like Mr. Harper starts to crusade against it, it almost feels brave to join his cause - no matter how cynically or sincerely it's touted.

Whatever the reason, though, our rejection of social civility as a cure is bound to have a profound effect on how we see ourselves as Canadians.

Tom Flanagan, the former Conservative campaign manager who is now a professor of political science at the University of Calgary, once said that the difference between liberals and conservatives is that conservatives believe people can't change, that human nature isn't malleable.

For many years, Canada's approach to criminality was, in that sense, liberal - we relied less on prison and more on rehabilitation, on changing people. Now we seem to be headed the other way.

"If you think that people don't change," says Mr. Stewart, of the John Howard Society, "if you punish people for what they are, as opposed to what they do - then all this restraint in punishment [that we've practised before now] makes no sense."

If people are unlikely to change, the bad ones can be locked up. That way the bad people will be in one place, and the good people will be in another place, and we'll never have to be confused as to who is whom.

We think we want to be tough on crime because we're afraid of criminals, but it turns out we're not. We're afraid of ourselves, and who we might turn out to be.

Thankfully, the election - now that Mr. Harper has made crime an issue - gives us a chance to choose.

With files from Rick Cash.

Editor's Note: The original newspaper version and an earlier online version of this article incorrectly located Abbotsford as west of Vancouver. This online version has been corrected.

Editor's Note: The original newspaper version and an earlier online version of this article gave an incorrect name for accelerated parole review (APR). This online version has been corrected.