Crime is real, just not easy to combat

Two flaws in the Tories approach to crime


090330_crimeI agree with Jason Kenney’s tweeted observation about crime being for real.

But what sorts of crime are on the rise? And what’s to be done to combat it?

Last year, I took a close look at the statistics, and here’s what I found most intriguing: crime overall is falling, but violent assaults are on the rise. I’ve plucked a line from that story to give a taste of what I discovered:

While most crime was on the wane between 1998 and 2007, assault with a weapon or causing bodily harm climbed steadily year after year, posting a dramatic 32.3 per cent rise over the decade.

What does it signify when there’s less crime overall (robbery, down; sexual assault, down; etc.) but more of the worst kind of violent attacks? From talking to cops and criminologists, and looking at a major study of who’s most likely to be a victim of crime in Canada, I concluded that there’s a sharply divided picture: the sort of crime that’s likely to directly hurt the average middle-class citizen is declining, while violence that threatens mainly the poor and the marginalized is rising.

What’s the best response to that complex situation? The Conservative government’s reaction has been mainly to impose a raft new mandatory minimum sentences for a long list of serious drug and gun crimes. I see two flaws in this approach.

First, government officials have told me they did not conduct any research into the current sentencing patterns for those convicted of drug and gun crimes. In other words, they don’t really know, beyond what they’ve picked up anecdotally, how tough, or lax, judges tend to be in these cases.

Second, from what police (particularly in Vancouver) tell me, if there is a pattern of light sentencing, it does not show up in cases of high-profile shootings or big-time trafficking convictions (the sorts of crimes targeted by the Tories’ proposed mandatory minimums), but rather in instances of routine repeat convictions that tend not to make headlines.

And in those frustrating chronic offender cases, the answer, from what I read, is not to have Ottawa dictate longer prison time, it’s for police to maintain profiles of repeat offenders, detailed records that in turn allow Crown attorneys to paint a clear picture of the thug in question in front of a trial judge. Properly informed, those judges tend to sentence accordingly.

That sounds sensible. Better police work, clearer arguments from prosecutors, more appropriate sentences from the bench. The only thing that’s missing is a good we’re-tough-on-crime headline for the politicians.

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Crime is real, just not easy to combat

  1. Well put.

    I am sad to hear that the government is moving forward with changes to sentencing based on anecdotal information rather than real statistics and numbers. I guess that scares me the most.

    • I think the problem rather lies with the fact there probably are real statistics and numbers regarding this legislation. However, it reflects rather poorly on Harper and his supporters that the data is directly related to polling and electoral preference rather than to the issue at hand.

      See also:

      Ian Brodie offers a candid case study in politics and policy

      Ian Brodie, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff, delivered an astonishingly frank explanation today for why the Conservative government cut the Goods and Services Tax, and why he’s glad they did, even though just about every economist and tax expert said it was a terrible bit of public policy.

      John Stuart Mill, right again.

    • You’re shocked they’d take this approach?

      This is coming from the same Conservative government whose Prime minister and other Ministers are on record as saying that crime statistics showing crimes going down doesn’t matter; everyone KNOWS crime is going up.

  2. Conservative, you aren’t really Kody using another name, are you? Because, this style of writing looks suspiciously like his.

    • Scott, you are off your tree, there is absolutely no similarity at all, apart from the “conservative” label.

    • Tribe, you couldn’t be more wrong about the writing styles. Kody’s is so distinctive I could smell it a mile away.

  3. Thanks, John, for this. It is of course a complicated mess of statistics and baselines, all subject to different rates of capture and conviction. It’s rather simplistic, to put it mildly, to say that “crime is up” or “crime is down” categorically, as if such a statement covered all possible crimes, jurisdictions, time periods, etc.

    That said, the one thing that bothers me is the argument that “crime isn’t going up, and thus the Conservatives are just fear mongering, feeding the base, playing politics etc.”. I’ve made this point before, but whether crime is up or down, it doesn’t change the fact that it is still a major problem and concern to citizens. That Canada had 50 less murders than the year before, doesn’t suggest that we shouldn’t be worried about the murders that still take place, for example.

    If you’re rebutting a claim that “crime is up” by showing statistics that it isn’t, that’s fine. But the point shouldn’t be broadened, as it often is, to “since crime is down, attempts to mitigate crime are necessarily wrong headed or unnecessary”. Equally, suggesting that “because crime is up, we should enact immediate and haphazard measures to alleviate the situation” is no more reasonable.

    Crime is a problem, it will always be a problem, to a greater or lesser degree. Whether we’re on the upswing or downswing of a trend at any given point in time seems rather beside the point of whether our criminal justice system is working as effectively as it could be. I tend to think reforms should be assessed on their own merits (or lack their of) regardless of ambiguous short term trends.

    • Sorry. I normally try to be more pithy, just wanted to put that idea out there as clearly as I could.

      • “Sorry. I normally try to be more pithy, just wanted to put that idea out there as clearly as I could.”


        I mean that in the nicest possible way, however.

        I see nothing but bullshit before your disclaimer.

        Clear would be:

        1. Define the problem and subsets as you see them
        2. Propose solutions to the specific problems.

        The waffle you present, what-the-hell do you think you are? A Liberal or New Democrat or Greenie fer chrissake?

        • I normally try to be more pithy implying, of course, that I didn’t try this time. Far from failing, I think I succeeded by leaps in bounds in being non-pithy.

          • Clear would be:

            1. Define the problem and subsets as you see them
            2. Propose solutions to the specific problems.

            People write volumes of books in such a fashion. I thought I made my point pretty clear. For the thick: whether crime rates are currently rising or falling is tangential to whether proposed reforms will aggravate, mitigate or have no effect whatsoever on crime rates as they currently stand.

          • You get an A+ in non-pithyness.

    • I don’t think you intended this, but your argument as stated above in regards to John’s post leads me to conclude that you believe the following to be true:
      “If we had perfect sentencing, we would have no crime”

      Without some sort of pre-crime division, that assertion would be patently false.

      I mention this, because I’m not sure if you are adding to his point, or arguing against it.

      • Not sure if you’re responding to my comment, Catelli, but your interpretation couldn’t be more wrong if you were. I don’t think we’ll ever have no crime. I just think that whether crime rates are rising or falling in some areas with regards to some subset of crime isn’t relevant. It’s whether the reforms being proposed will likely have a positive and negative effect on the overall problem. That should be the focus, and I think the debate over whether crime is rising or falling is window dressing, at best, and distracting bright minds from the overall problem, at worst.

        • That would be a much stronger argument if the idea of a RISING TIDE OF CRIME SEEKING TO DESTROY US ALL AND EAT YOUR CHILDREN ZOMGWTFBBQQQ!!!! wasn’t a prevalent tone in so much tough-on-crime rhetoric.

        • That’s what I thought. I got your main point, but John is making the same argument. He pointed out that a particular type of crime affecting a specific part of the populace is a rising problem even though the overall crime rate is going down. He then made some specific points on how to deal with it.

          So overall you’re both making the same argument. I was trying to determine which part of john’s argument you were refuting or supporting.

          • Catelli,

            Yes, quite. I wasn’t responding to John, just making a general comment towards those who take temporary trends to indicate whether something is a “problem” or not.

  4. It could be that the disenfranchised are arming themselves to a larger extent then was possible before, or that it was less likely to be investigated

    is it true that accuseds are coming before sentencing judges without records of their criminal history being available (I’m skeptical)?

    • That is an interesting question. On the one hand, John writes that “Properly informed, [about the thug in question] those judges tend to sentence accordingly.” However, newspapers from Vancouver have been reporting that routine offenders, well-known to the police, tend to get shorter sentences as their convictions multiply. I don’t know whether this implies that the BC judges are not informed, but I have to wonder how this tendency toward shorter sentences can be the norm if the judges don’t know they are sentencing a repeat offender.
      I’m not sure if I’ve made myself clear in that last sentence, but it is a situation that has puzzled me.

      • The sheer number of repeat offenses is troubling.

    • This is puzzling, in the British system the judge can ask the police or prosecution if something is “known” of a defendant. This can only happen after conviction of course, but obviously this enables the judge to take a tougher line on repeat offenders. This seems like a no brainer – someone please tell me this does happen here too!

      • “What we do is we send over a full package on the history of these individuals and the judges are better able to make informed decisions,” said Rennie.”

        Does this answer my question? If it in fact does, then i’m simply speechless!

        • And of course John’s link does much to overturn the myth that judges are to blame for giving criminals a slap on the wrist, rather than appropriate sentences.
          I have also heard it argued that MM sentences is counter-productive because it reduces the likelihood that offenders will plead guilty. This will probably offend some conservatives, but the fact is pleading speeds up the system and puts some people behind bars who you might not have been able to convict due to insufficient evidence.

          • I think Macleans is eating my posts because they sort of contain a link, but the jist of them if you search the canlii database it’s hard to find sentencing cases where the judge specificially doesn’t mention the criminal history of the accused.

          • Thanks – don’t know wheter that’s comforting or not. If judges are aware of offenders prior convictions then why on earth not hand out harsher sentences? Clearly i’m out of my depth here!
            Many people aren’t aware that much petty, non violent crime is committed by a relatively small group of repeat offenders. I’m all for giving someone a first chance or two, but contempt for the law has to have consequences.

          • Well, we’re dealing with a reporter’s assessment based on the comments of a police officer. The idea that the sentence is going to be “wrong” unless the police get specially involved is a little suspect to me.

          • The police are sitting on the committees that select judges now, aren’t they? That definitely doesn’t comfort me!

  5. This sounds like old Russia – hmmm…..

    • You’ll note “conservative” never did answer my question whether he was Kody or not.

      And yes, more conservative tough-guy rhetoric about what to do… Maybe we should set up a Guantanamo Bay type gulag while we’re at it, judging from some of his “suggestions”.

  6. I should like to publicly apologise to Mr. conservative for calling him an idiot earlier today.

    He is clearly neither an idiot, nor Kody.

    He’s an obnoxious cretin.

    Thank you.

  7. Oh, and some of the readers are unionized too. A vicious circle … best dealt with by circular thinking. I think it means there’s no end.

  8. For what it’s worth i’ve seen posts from this guy over at prairie wrangler, where he is completely free to let loose his inner jerk. At a guess i’d say he also posts under liberals fail. Kody is a dacent guy compared to this a-hole!

  9. Kc, I think you’re right. Conservative is the same guy as Liberal FAIL. I’ve seen him on Olaf’s blog, too. My spidey sense is tingling.

  10. Duh, i didn’t realize it was Olaf’s blog. Geez he was taking a lot of abuse from this guy. Take my hat off to him, i woulda kicked the jerk out at half the abuse.

  11. I wasn’t kidding about martial law, btw. A limited suspension of civil liberties for a short period of time can be reasonably justified in a free and democratic society plagued by armed urban militia violence and a few too many violent terrorist groups (LTTE, Mohawks, JDL) operating too openly for my liking. A longer term solution might involve using the notwithstanding clause to expedite the execution of chronic criminals.

    More people are getting killed in gang violence than the FLQ ever killed, and if the War Measures Act was palatable to Trudeau’s nuthuggers then a spot of martial law by General…whoops, I mean PM Harper, heh, should be no problem.

    • Trudeau took a lot of flack for that decision – hardly pandering. Poor little conservative, reduced to wandering around liberal blogs trying to wind people up. Sad really.

      • I thought wherry’s was the liberal blog?

        • I apologize for assuming, i’m sure the political views of Maclean’s writers are their own affair.

    • It’s a good thing you’re commenting on the internet then, rather than being responsible for these kind of decisions.

      • My plan would eliminate criminal gangs in a matter of weeks. No more Hell Angels, Indian Posse, Crips, Bloods, they’d be eliminated forever. Car thefts would drop dramatically, violent crime would drop too, I’m failing to see substantial down side here.

        • Especially since we could put people like yourself up against the wall. Count me in.

          • Nononono Jack, this is for criminals who would harm our fellow citizens; political persecution is your side’s bag, not ours.

            Stalin of course used the criminals in the Gulags to keep the political prisoners in line and make their lives a little more miserable. When your kulak ass and mine are busting boulders side by each in work camp North Butt Plug 9, remind me to thank you for your stirring defense of justice.

          • The point being that when you negate the rule of law you open a can of worms. There are perfectly legal ways to fight violent crime and biker gangs and all that without saying, “It’s hopeless without extrajudicial executions.” As I’m sure you know.

          • Taliban conservative!

        • wow. just wow. and is Canada run amok? a criminal under every bed i c.

          last time i checked we had a woman dating a cabinet minister who was a known associate of ppl in organized crime; she also came into possession of “sensitive” unsecured documents. not that i believe think she is a threat (the govt didn’t think so at first). but i think we ought to begin with your martial law in-house first non? beginning with all those ppl who treated her as a party favour.

          or this a case again with the National conservs of do as i say not as i do?
          “Better police work, clearer arguments from prosecutors, more appropriate sentences from the bench.” the so-called TO “terrorist group” was caught not by revived sunsetted anti-terrorist bills but by good old fashioned police work. the laws are already on the books; we simply have to make them work better for us instead of the divisive, “make work” projects that this min-con govt keeps cooking up to make it look like they really get it.

  12. Ten thousand years from now, archeologists will be scouring the burnt out craters of Northern Obamastan and ask themselves what brought this civilization to a close. War, famine, drought…no…lawyers.

  13. NO REALLY?!! Headline: this could happen to you! BEWARE Crime Is Real!
    my mouth is agape! like what ivory tower does the “twit”-er live in that leads him to this conclusion in such a spectacularly FAIL way?

    wanna know how real crime is? ask the battered woman/man, the abused child, the elderly or vulnerable person who has been swindled out of their life-savings or had their “handicap” transportation stolen, the fireman/cop slain in the line of duty…words cannot express.

    so it finally sunk into somebody’s thick skull that crime is real! wow oh so very Marie Antoinette; how very fortunate for them that they remain unscathed, untouched by *reality* the rest of us face.

    throw the book at ’em! “mandatory sentencing”, that’s the ticket! like criminals don’t have “fall-guys” to do the time. eureka! we can just send them off to Crime University so they can enhance their skills! oh and we’ll need to build bigger better jails; so let’s use stimulus $$ and private enterprise for that; and warp justice (get judges to take bribes) to fill those jails! what a collossal 1 D 10 T error!

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