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Police with man in handcuffs. (Steven Robertson @ Orem)
Police with man in handcuffs. (Steven Robertson @ Orem)

Greenspan and Doob

Crunch the numbers: Crime rates are going down Add to ...

Everyone wants to reduce crime and use resources effectively. But the Conservative government's "tough on crime" agenda would have you believe that crime is increasing and can only be reduced by using tougher penalties. This assertion is wrong, as is a study by an Ottawa-based think tank that reviewed the 2009 Statistics Canada report on crime.

The study, by former Alberta Crown attorney Scott Newark for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, suggests that violent crime is increasing, contrary to the Statscan report and all reasoned examinations of existing data. Mr. Newark's study is filled with problems: It compares figures that can't be compared. It presents figures that are inaccurate. And it ignores evidence supporting the conclusion that crime is, in fact, decreasing.

Mr. Newark criticizes Statscan for not including crime rates for all criminal offences. This information is available to anyone in the world on Statscan's website. The figures clearly show (see Column 1 of our table) a substantial decrease over time. It's no wonder Mr. Newark only chose to criticize, rather than present the numbers.

The violent crime rates presented in Statscan's report are reproduced in Column 2 of our table. It shows that, since 2000, the violent crime rate went down each and every year. Mr. Newark's study offers only three figures (of numbers of crimes, not rates, thus not correcting for population increases) for 1999 (291,000), 2004 (302,000) and 2009 (443,000). The 2009 figure corresponds to current Statscan data; the 1999 and 2004 figures use a narrower definition of violence.

Mr. Newark's 2009 figure includes an additional set of offences - criminal harassment and uttering threats. These two newcomers to the category of violence constituted 22 per cent of all violent offences. Mr. Newark makes it clear that he's aware of the change in definition, but ignores it in his table and doesn't refer to the data that we have reproduced in Column 2 because it doesn't support his erroneous conclusion.

It's easy to make crime look as though it's going up if one provides numbers that are wrong or misleading. Mr. Newark offers what he calls "youth violent crime" for three years and shows "rates per 100,000" for these years: 956 (for 2001), 1,498 (for 2004) and 1,887 (for 2008). He then concludes there's been a 100-per-cent increase in youth violent crime.

The data from the Statscan report he's critiquing are in Column 3. Mr. Newark's starting point (2001) is clearly wrong; he says in his table that the number is 956 (rather than 1,957, the true number), thereby supporting his erroneous conclusion that there's been a large increase in youth violent crime. Had he reproduced the correct figures for these years in his table, one couldn't conclude that the youth violent crime rate had gone up.

There are other problems. In an attempt to explain away the fact that homicide rates have unambiguously decreased since the mid-1970s, Mr. Newark suggests that "homicides are arguably decreasing because of the increased quality of medical care," presumably turning murders into attempted murders. Although he must know, as a former Crown attorney, that attempted murder doesn't require life-threatening injuries or, indeed, any injury, he still suggests that medical care is a likely cause for the failure of homicide rates to increase. For this to be true, there should be an increase in attempted murder rates. Column 4 shows no overall increase in homicide rates in recent years, and Column 5 shows no consistent trend in attempted murder rates.

It appears that for people such as Mr. Newark, Statistics Canada is never wrong as long as it reports that crime rates are increasing. If it says crime is decreasing, then it's never right. The fact of the matter is that crime rates have nothing to do with tougher laws or harsher sentencing. The fact is that crime rates go up and down. In recent years, they've gone down.

Edward Greenspan is a Toronto criminal lawyer. Anthony Doob is a professor of criminology at the University of Toronto.

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