By Jeffrey Simpson Globe and Mail, November 4, 2011
Here’s the good news, the really good news: Canada’s homicide rate has fallen to its lowest level since 1966.
Here’s the bad news, the really bad news: The federal government acts as if crime were rising. Worse, it proposes measures that have demonstrably failed elsewhere, and will thus fail here.
Homicide rates by no means tell the whole story about crime. But because homicides are more likely to be reported to the police than other crimes, the homicide rate is taken to be what experts call a “social barometer.”
A recent thorough study of homicides by Tina Hotton Mahony of Statistics Canada lays all the facts before Canadians. It’s too bad – indeed, it’s a tragedy – that these sorts of facts have no influence on the Harper government’s expensive and counterproductive, politically motivated “tough on crime” agenda.
Peel back the general statistics and look more closely at homicides. For example, 13 per cent of those accused of homicide in the past decade were suspected of having a mental or developmental disorder. “Tough on crime” measures are hopeless in these cases.
The government stiffens penalties for gun-related offences, even as the number and rate of firearm-related homicides are falling. More people are killed from stabbings and beatings than guns. So why don’t we crack down on knives and baseball bats?
Homicides committed by strangers and criminals – the ones the “tough on crime” measures are supposed to suppress – are already falling dramatically. In the country’s largest cities – Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, where the Conservatives have pushed their agenda hardest – the homicide rate is below the national rate. Last year, British Columbia had the lowest homicide rate since the mid-1960s.
Homicide rates in Ontario and Quebec are also falling. Both rates are below the national average, and Quebec’s is also at the lowest level since the mid-1960s. No wonder, then, that the governments of both provinces are annoyed by the Harper government’s crime bills.
Ontario’s beefs seem mostly to be about costs, a complaint understandably shared with other provinces. More criminals in jail mean higher prison costs, which will fall on provinces. Ontario, like others, wants recompense from Ottawa, which has thus far steadfastly refused.
Quebec’s objections are more profound. They were forcefully made this week by Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier. More prison terms lead to more recidivism, he said, accusing the government of ignoring the statistics. “Science is useful. At some point, someone discovered that the Earth is round.”
Alas, this is the government that abolished the long-form census, the method every statistician here and abroad said would produce the most accurate facts. In that file, as in criminal justice and others, it’s a government that either looks simple facts in the face and denies them, or willfully disregards them.
Mr. Fournier’s blast came the day after the country’s ombudsman for prisons warned again of crowding in penitentiaries, a crowding that will intensify as the government’s “tough on crime” bills stuff more people into the same space. Many prisons now experience high rates of double-bunking and other forms of crowding, and the “tough on crime” government and those who support its approach would say that’s great – more crowded prisons are what crooks deserve. It’s also what will make more of them crooks for longer.
A bill now before Parliament will impose mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offences and toughen the youth justice system. These are the very measures against which Mr. Fournier properly inveighed.
Without any of these measures, almost all crime rates in Canada are falling, and not just homicide. The way to keep them falling is not only to insist on excellent police work but also to target policies at troubled areas and to work on the causes of crime, causes often rooted in social dislocation, mental illness and economic conditions.
Building more prisons, as an act of economic stimulus, is completely bone-headed, as every a grade-school student can tell.
Putting more people behind bars for longer terms, is also completely bone-headed, as every criminologist and police chief tell us.
Generating more crime through over-crowding and more bitterness among the prison population is merely generating more "data" on which to prove the merits of the government's strategy...
Nevertheless, if you were to listen to the "red-neck" opinions of the anti-government, beer-guzzling commentariat in most bars and pubs, you will hear that the last fifty years the country has gone "soft on crime"...as a commonly head myth, not borne out by any of the empirical data, merely the sentiments of the "right".
Empirical research depends so heavily on the framing of the question. If the question seeks to learn the numbers of incidents and the pattern those numbers depict, that is one thing. However, if the researcher seeks to learn the perceptions of voters, and especially voters on whom any government is dependent, then the question is obviously different from the "numbers of incidents" (murders, crimes, etc.) questions.
Dependent on the act of marking an "X" and not on the numbers of murders committed, this government is taking the country headlong down a path strewn with the evidence of perceptions of their most loyal voters. They don't care a whit that all the respected social scientists in the country sign a letter to the newspapers calling for retention of the long form census as the best way to compile accurate data on the medium and long-term future. And they don't care a whit, either, for the opinions of all the chiefs of police, and the criminologists, and even the government of states like Texas, where the evidence points to success in a variety of crime-fighting and preventing programs that exclude more and longer prison terms.
They care about the "perceptions" of their voters, and their voters are their only "stockholder" and stakeholder.
This government is more like a corporation than any in Canadian history. It operates with a CEO, the Prime Minister, and a sycophantic Board of Directors, the Cabinet, disdains the media, rallies to "circle the wagons" whenever there is a public criticism, and could care less about logic, empirical data, or the "best interests of the country". Their single and dominating goal is their own re-election, not merely in four years but in the next forty years.
They are playing the race card by fawning to the various ethnic communities as another tactic in their marketing scheme of self-interest. They are listening closely to the "grunts" and "groans" of the anti-intellectuals (like their beloved Don Cherry, and Rob Ford and their ilk) who think the "patsies" have been for too long in charge. They would even support the decision by the Royal Military College Senate to grant a "honorary degree" to Mr. Cherry, in a move dedicated to generating the disdain of the "intellectual" class, as opposed to the "pragmatic" class, as they clearly see themselves dominating.
This is a government dedicated to the proposition that success, in narrow terms like sales revenue, and stock purchases will trump the larger issues like the country's best interests, the rehabilitation of criminals, the attention needed by the social and human development side of the "enterprise"...this is a "balance sheet" government worshipping at the altar of corporate culture, and that includes the occasional share-holders' meeting where patrons are given reports dedicated to demonstrating the growing "acceptance" from a marketing perspective of their "brand" among those whose customer loyalty is their sole raison d'etre, to feed and reward that loyalty.
It is not only narcissistic; it is also politically incestuous. It is a form of tribalism taken to the next level. Small towns exclude new-comers as if they came from Mars. Small towns exclude people with different accents and different skin colours, as if they were invaders from the 'lost ark'. Small towns "party" when one of their own grabs a bag of cash at the lottery office, just as Huntsville and Parry Sound did from the "work" of Clement and his gang over the G20 spending.
Pretending they have a racially blind approach to Canadian politics, while playing the sycophant to those ethnic communities, is part of the game, when "polishing the brand" is the game.
The "dignity of the individual" is trumped by the "longevity of the political reign" and that depends almost exclusively, in this government's perspective on the "strength of the brand"...and that depends on a dramatic and tragic co-dependence on the will of the master, in this case, all those who write cheques to the Conservative party.
It is certainly no way to govern a country, but it demonstrates the triumph of self-interest, and corporate culture and CEO perfectionism. It's really simpler that way, I guess.