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Why is Canada’s Crime Rate Falling?

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Konrad Bongard, freelance columnist for Pardon Applications of Canada, explores the trend of decreasing crime rates in Canada and analyzes the varying opinions as to the cause.

In 2012, the rate of reported crime in Canada fell for the eleventh subsequent year.  And everyone seems to have an opinion on why.

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One popular theory, which American sociologists such as Stephen Levitt have argued for in relation to their own country, and that has been subsequently parroted by Canadian journalists, is that crime began to fall in the early nineties because the legalization of abortion (in other words, that terminated pregnancies would’ve been more likely to culminate in youth who would be eligible to commit crime).

However, this is unlikely.  Canada legalized its abortion laws much later than the United States did — while the Roe v. Wade decision in the U.S. occurred in 1973, English Canada did not fully legalize abortion until 1988. If legalizing abortion really leads to lower crime, why did Canada’s crime rate begin to plunge in 1991, just three years after R. v. Morgentaler?

Other theories abound. Some argue that Canada’s crime rate has declined because of decreased alcohol consumption — a theory that, while plausible, shouldn’t be overstated, since while Canada drinks more than 50 per cent more than the global average its comparative crime rate is decidedly below that (higher drinking rates are also correlated with demographic realities that can also impact crime).

Another common notion proposed is that crime has fallen because Canada is now an overall gentler society than in the past — which, while probably true, doesn’t necessarily explain why crime rose throughout the 1960s and 1970s, just as the idea of a ‘human rights-based culture’ was becoming more entrenched than ever.

The Harper government claims that falling crime rates are proof of the efficacy of their ‘tough on crime’ agenda. This is an odd theory, given that crime rates began to fall in 1991 — years before they ever implemented such an agenda.

Perhaps the strangest idea of all is that the lead included in petrol in the 1970s and 1980s led to higher crime rates. On the surface of things, this looks plausible — Canada restricted lead petrol in 1990, and crime rates began to decline in 1991. But France’s crime rate has recently surged, and it restricted lead petrol years ago.

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“The Harper government claims that falling crime rates are proof of the efficacy of their ‘tough on crime’ agenda. This is an odd theory, given that crime rates began to fall in 1991 — years before they ever implemented such an agenda.”

In fact, there is an explanation that makes more sense than all of the above mentioned: demographics.

Simply put, young males are more likely to commit crimes — at least the crimes that are likely to be reported. Canada’s population in the 15-29 demographic — the most likely to commit crimes which are reported — peaked in 1982, just as Canada’s crime rates were reaching their highest ever rates. Combined with the crack cocaine epidemic, these conditions generated a veritable perfect storm for the escalation of reported crime rates. However, as the population aged — after 1991 — reported crime again became less widespread.

This theory is broadly consistent when one considers the distribution of crime in Canada today. The provinces with the highest rankings in the crime severity index are all western, ranging from Alberta’s 85.59 to Saskatchewan’s 139.00. With the exception of British Columbia, which is slightly older than Ontario (41.4 years compared to 39.8 years), these are also the provinces with the youngest median population ages.

The pattern is even more pronounced when you look at the territories. The Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut all have crime severity rankings far higher than the provinces, at 340.98, 156.69, and 325.57 respectively. The median age of the populations in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut — which are much more crime-ridden than Yukon — are 32.1 years and 24.7 years respectively (a trend which owes much to shorter life expectancies, and a high birth rate in First Nations communities). In Yukon, the median age of the population is 39.4 years — still young by Canadian standards, but much older than its territorial peers.  And the western provinces and the territories have higher ratio of males to females, for the most part, than the other provinces.

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Of course, more contributes to crime in Western Canada and the territories than a relatively young population base. The western provinces and the territories also have much larger First Nations populations per capita than the other provinces — populations that, owing to a lack of community infrastructure, basic economic opportunity, and a history of systemic oppression, are more likely to engage in crime. But the relatively high birth rate within First Nations communities is also likely also a factor in causing more crime in those areas.

The relationship between younger populations and reported crime may also help explain why crime today is less likely to be reported than in the past. The GSS (General Social Survey) has found that, since 2004, Canadians have been reporting less of the criminal incidents they claim to have witnessed — and many speculate that the proportion of crimes which are not reported may have steadily increased since the 1990s. In this same period, the median age of Canada’s population has been steadily increasing — from 33 years in 1991 to 41 years today.

A research paper published by the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services, “Review of the Roots of Youth Violence”, may shed light on why more crime today goes unreported. The report claims that — owing to a host of factors, including public perception, a lack of meditation, and a tendency towards visibility — “juveniles are more likely to be caught than adults”, and that “juvenile crimes may be reported to law enforcement [agencies] at a higher rate.” It also notes “that youths are blamed for more crime than they actually do.”

One could suppose then, that if Canada’s rate of reported crime has declined faster than its actual crime rate, it may be because people are simply more likely to report crimes committed by youth. Crime, of course, encompasses a huge number of activities — from white-collar crime to sex crime to cybercrime. However, reportage of crime still leans heavily towards ‘visible’ forms of crime, such as robbery and assault — precisely the types youth (and, particularly, males) are more likely to engage in.

Part of this is perhaps inevitable.  A sexual assault allegation a women makes against her spouse, for example, is inherently less likely to be witnessed (and thus reported) than the robbery of a convenience store. However, much of it also relates to the way we perceive crime as a society: while white-collar crimes may defraud individuals of large sums of money, and sexual assaults may damage lives permanently, we are still inundated by media images which inordinately portray and demonize individuals committing a certain kind of physical, outwardly violent crime. The result is that, collectively, there is a tendency to focus disproportionate attention and scrutiny on forms of crime that are more likely to be committed by individuals who are young and lower-income (this is supported by the study, which points out that the “moral panics” generated by the media about youth crime, and largely bought into by the public, “are fairly unconnected” to actual crime rates).

It is, undoubtedly, important for Canada to be ‘tough on crime.’ But part of being tough on crime is understanding that sometimes the most serious crimes are committed by the least assuming suspects.

Konrad Bongard is a freelance columnist for Pardon Applications of Canada, the nationwide processing firm for Canadian Pardon (Record Suspension) & U.S. Entry Waiver applications.  The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Pardon Applications of Canada.  For a list of statistical references used in this article, or more information on Pardon Applications of Canada, call 866-383-9744 or email info@pardonapplications.ca