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Canada is spending more to combat less crime, PBO finds

Why Kevin Page’s report won’t clarify the law-and-order debate


 

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

This morning’s release of a richly detailed, yet admirably straightforward, report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer on what Canadian governments spend enforcing criminal law and locking up offenders should be enough to bring new calm and clarity to a debate that’s usually clouded by emotion.

But, of course, that’s highly unlikely. Crime and punishment arguments are bitterly polarized. The Conservative government is inclined to pay little attention to the plain fact that crime rates have been declining for many years, seeking political advantage by presenting itself as a bulwark against lawlessness. But its critics, I’m afraid, tend too often to brush off the legitimate anxiety felt by many Canadians, especially about highly publicized gun crime, as if public opinion doesn’t matter when it fails to neatly reflect the data.

For anyone seeking a fair-minded turn in this debate, though, the PBO’s exemplary report offers a solid starting point. The most fundamental figures it presents frame a policy paradox. From 2002 to 2011, Canada’s crime rate decreased by just over 30 per cent, from 7,516 incidents per 100,000 people to 5,757. Yet from 2002-2012, inflation-adjusted spending on criminal justice, both by Ottawa and the provinces and territories, soared 37 per cent.

Overall spending now stands at more than $20 billion, 73 per cent provincial and 27 per cent federal. That’s serious money—the PBO points out that it’s as much as Ottawa spends on national defence. Funding the armed forces is, though, strictly a federal matter. But the Harper government’s law-and-order agenda, especially sentencing policies that result in more offenders going to jail for longer stretches, leaves provinces no choice but to pick up at least some of the costs.

“The main thing that sticks out for me,” said University of Ottawa criminologist Justin Piché about the PBO report, “is the provinces are bearing the lion’s share of the costs.” That’s a point particularly worth considering on the day before the tabling of a new federal budget, for which Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has reaffirmed his longstanding pledge that he will not cut transfers to the provinces. Does Flaherty’s concern for provincial balance sheets extend to making sure federal justice policy doesn’t impose unnecessary new costs?

Piché predicts with some frustration that the federal government and its defenders will point to falling crime rates during a period of rising spending on enforcement as evidence that its policies are actually working. In fact, he says trends toward less crime, including less severe crime, long pre-date the 2006 election of the Harper Conservatives.

Perhaps the most unsettling figure in the PBO report is that, even with the crime rate dropping, Canada’s total incarceration rate rose by 5.8 per cent between 2002 and 2010, from 133 to 141 per 100,000 people behind bars. Even if your instinct is that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with throwing more criminals in prison (despite the fact that there are fewer of them overall), surely that needs to be balanced with efforts to prevent crime and helping offenders, particularly the many with drug problems, change their lives.

Yet where is the evidence that federal policy takes this side of crime policy seriously? The PBO report unambiguously charts the rise in spending on police, courts and prisons. Elsewhere, though, there’s no evidence of similar increase in resources for prevention and treatment. For instance, last year I reported on how Health Canada’s funding for drug treatment programs, under a broader federal anti-drug strategy, is slated to drop 15 per cent in the coming five years, compared to the previous five, while the RCMP’s targeted funding for drug enforcement is projected to jump 22 per cent in the same period. To me, that divergence suggests a troubling policy imbalance.

There is at least one promising development, however, in the broad picture of rising spending to fight falling crime. Early this year, police chiefs from across the country convened in Ottawa for a summit on the economics of law enforcement. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told them they must most quickly to reform the way they work or be “cut drastically” by governments no longer willing to pay more and more.

Michael Kempa, another University of Ottawa criminology professor, says the policy atmosphere following that January summit on the economics of policing is more promising than it has been at any time in the past two decades. He says a combination of budget pressures since the recession of 2008-2009 and new research on police efficiency have combined to push many forces toward truly fresh thinking.

“It’s about redefining the core functions of police,” Kempa says. After years of new responsibilities being heaped on police forces, many police planners are moving toward clarifying and streamlining their roles. A key shift, he said, will be to move the lead responsibilities for investigating financial and Internet crime to specialists, and away from conventional police, who are better equipped to be handling conventional violent and property crimes.

If Kempa is right, Canadian police forces will soon enter a period of reform that sensibly controls costs while actually improving enforcement in growing categories of crime. It’s an upbeat outlook on one of the key components of rising spending the PBO captured so convincingly.

And if policing costs can be subjected to clear, consensus-building analysis, why not, say, prison policy? No reason—beyond the refusal of politicians who set the tone for this important debate to tone down the rhetoric and turn their attention toward the sort of invaluable data and dispassionate analysis delivered by the PBO today.


 

Canada is spending more to combat less crime, PBO finds

  1. The process of separating policy from politics in Canada is nearly complete.

    Our electoral system is worse than a popularity contest. Not only do we no longer compare candidates’ ideas and proposals when voting, we don’t even vote for the person we like. Since 1993 most of Canada has being voting against someone and since policy debate doesn’t affect that, we won’t be getting it any time soon.

    • Who says that since 1993 most of Canada has been voting against someone? Do you have proof to back that up?

  2. As I recall, the long gun registry was also instituted in an era of diminishing long gun crime.

    • Actually, it was put in place after the mass murder of 14 women at École Polytechnique. Of course, mass killings are a worthy price to pay to avoid the inconvenience of registering one’s guns. Next phase in destroying the liberal nanny state: removing all the pesky regulations that get in the way of a person’s God-given right to drive a car and fish!

      • So basing policy on emotion after a single incident equates with good policy? I suppose the fact that subsequent mass shootings were not prevented or that the cost of the implementation was absurdly high hasn’t shaken your confidence in this policy?

  3. But, of course, that’s highly unlikely. Crime and punishment arguments
    are bitterly polarized. The Conservative government is inclined to pay
    little attention to the plain fact that crime rates have been declining
    for many years, seeking political advantage by presenting itself as a
    bulwark against lawlessness. But its critics, I’m afraid, tend too often
    to brush off the legitimate anxiety felt by many Canadians, especially
    about highly publicized gun crime, as if public opinion doesn’t matter
    when it fails to neatly reflect the data.

    ***

    This was an incredibly poor attempt at trying to create an equivalence, Geddes, and you should feel very bad about yourself. They aren’t emotional except on the right wing fear-mongering side, and no, public opinion shouldn’t be the basis for policy when it’s clearly mistaken. While it’s natural to try to want to give “both sides” a chance to make their “argument”, treating dumb like smart serves no purpose and makes it look like you don’t know what you’re writing about.

    • But wanting to take the Canadian voters for fools hasn’t worked out well for the NDP or LIberals when it comes to the subject of crime.

      Let Mulcair do all the defending of copshooters, and let Justin do all the defending of Muslim wife beaters; Canadian voters know better in this case.

      • Canadian voters are not as easily fooled as you think…

        • And what would I be thinking, Ron?

          Let me tell you what I think.

          I think Justin is a dreamer and his own supporters are proving the point for me. Justin, the boaster, has managed to registrar just over 40% of supporters to do the voting and 59% of them are 50 years or older.

          Poor Justin, can’t even count on the young hip 18 year olds to push him over the finish line.

      • QED, I suppose.

  4. The most fundamental figures it presents frame a policy paradox. From 2002 to 2011, Canada’s crime rate decreased by just over 30 per cent, from 7,516 incidents per 100,000 people to 5,757. Yet from 2002-2012, inflation-adjusted spending on criminal justice, both by Ottawa and the provinces and territories, soared 37 per cent.

    Only a liberal could say something like that.

    So they spend money to improve things, and then things improve, and then the brilliant John Geddes calls it a paradox.

    I guess liberals are just so used to wasting money they become confused and disoriented when witnessing success.

    • That actually deserves part marks for stating a possible reason, but then loses them for assuming that possibility is a definitive conclusion.

    • Harper’s 11-bills-in-one omnibus package that wages a war on drugs and crime was passed March 2012. It’s obviously ridiculous to claim that it produced the drop in crime from 2002 to 2012. Fact is, Harper is importing Republican ideology against the advice of the Americans themselves who said it’s doomed to failure. The reason why it costs more money to get poorer results? Because it’s purpose is to weasel votes, not actually lower crime. (To achieve the former, evidence-based policy is required.)

      • The more Harper haters I count, the more votes the CPC will win. Guaranteed.

        • The problem is that Conservatives refuse to take responsibility for their bad decisions and policy failures. Whining and crying like paranoid lunatics will not help your cause any, nor should it.

          • Good thing you’re not a member of the government. You’ve got that ‘being able to read the public’ all wrong. And they’ve got it right most of the time, and will keep getting it right as long as folks like you don’t feed them ‘the reading of the public’.

            But thanks for trying.

      • Luv your use of the buzzword “evidence-based”. It’s like you’re a used car salesman, with the buzzwords.
        Here’s your evidence: crime is lower. It’s a fact that more enforcement leads to lower crime, that’s how New York City was transformed from a cesspool of crime to a safe city. It was once the most crime-ridden city in America, now it’s average, and now much safer than cities like LA, Chicago, and many others.

        • Funny how “crime is lower” is suddenly evidence of the success of Tory policies.

          The crime rate’s been going down since LONG before the Tories came in to office. The crime rate consistently dropping was never enough evidence for the Tories when they were accusing the Liberals of being soft on crime, and yet suddenly, miraculously, the crime rate dropping is now evidence of the success of the Tories tough on crime policies (despite the fact that the vast majority of said policies weren’t actually enacted until 2012).

          Funny how that works.

          It’s kinda like how “Demand Better!!!” morphed in to “Why is everyone always holding us to a higher standard???” the second the Tories crossed the aisle.

          • So we’ve gone from the ‘paradox’ to your predictable argument. Nice try to turn it around, but you’ve strayed so far from what I was saying I don’t see any reason to respond to it. You could try responding to what I said, rather than spouting the pre-canned liberal talking points.

          • You said: “Here’s your evidence: crime is lower”.

            All I pointed out was that in the over a decade of Liberal rule the exact same thing was true. And when Liberals said “Here’s your evidence: crime is lower”, Tories scoffed, and started talking about the scourge of unreported crime.

          • Evidence and proof are not the same thing.

            Additionally, a given result can have multiple causes.

            You always make all kinds of insinuations and assumptions and straw-men, and then you whine when I point out you’re doing so.

            Yes I did say: “Here’s your evidence: crime is lower”.

            And then you make all kinds of assumptions and insinuations that have nothing to do with that statement. This is your standard mode of argument, you argue against things that people did not say.

          • Of course evidence and proof are two different things.

            That said, plenty of Tories and Tory supporters (not necessarily you) claimed that the consistent pre-2006 drops in the crime rate were neither evidence, nor proof. Now, suddenly, those same people are pointing to the post-2006 drops in the crime rate as evidence of something.

            I agree that in neither case is it necessarily fair to point to the drops as “proof” of something, but it makes no sense whatsoever for people (again, maybe not you, but PLENTY of Tory supporters) to suddenly claim that the exact same evidence that they used to deride as meaningless pre-2006, is suddenly meaningful post-2006.

        • Evidence based policy is not a buzzword. It means, in this case, using scientific studies in criminology and other social sciences to tailor policy and programs to reduce the crime rate and lower the recidivism rate. This approach gets results because it builds upon a body of knowledge that shows what works and what doesn’t. The “war on drugs and crime” approach throws away scientific evidence in favor of simple-minded ideology that appeals to one’s primitive sense of justice.

          The fact is other countries have gotten better results using more sophisticated methods. America’s boneheaded war on crime has caused the country to reach the highest incarceration rate in the world. It is not only gets worst results it’s a colossal waste of taxpayer money.

          • I agree with you entirely Ron. But again how was it that the gun registry came to life during declining gun violence? As I noted above, a law based on a single incident with no preventative measures has been vociferously supported by both Libs and NDP for the last decade. Apparently, it isn’t only Conservatives who can’t generate evidence-based policies of crime.

  5. Maybe Page is the confused one. Maybe because more money is spent on fighting crime, the crime rate has gone down?

    Or can Mr.Page only be right?

    We shall see tomorrow what happens in court.

    Mr.Page has made himself extra available to media outlets for the last few weeks. If he loses the court case I wonder if he will still be appearing in the news every day to plead his case.

    Mr.Page is still on the job as of today and can’t stop criticizing the government. The guy has no shame (and no, just because he lost a son, that does not qualify him for being well motivated for the job; the unfortunate death of his son has nothing whatsoever to do with his job, so the media should stop asking him about it.)

  6. Harper is importing America’s failed war on drugs and crime just as America extricates itself from its costly mistake. The reason the policy is doomed to failure? It’s based on playing politics and weaseling votes not what the evidence is saying.

    The US homicide rate is: 3X Canada’s; 6X Germany’s; 7X Norway’s; 8X Austria’s. If we want to lower our crime rate, we should look at countries that have successful strategies, not ones that don’t.

    >> “You will spend billions and billions and billions on locking people up,” says Judge John Creuzot of the Dallas County Court. “And there will come a point in time where the public says, ‘Enough!’ And you’ll wind up letting them out.” <<

    Milewski: Texas conservatives reject Harper's crime plan
    http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2011/10/17/pol-vp-milewski-texas-crime.html

    • Oh, and I love it when Milewski gets in on the act of Harper hating. Whenever Milewski spins one Harper hate, there will be two votes coming Harper’s way.

      Please, please, let Milewski spin all he wants.

      • Yeah, and the Texas judge is, no doubt, indulging in “Harper-hating” too…

        • You are paranoid, aren’t you?

  7. I don’t know a single person suffering from ‘legitimate anxiety’ that they might be shot in during a ‘gun crime’.

  8. Of course we are spending more. Skyrocketing police salaries, every techno gadget known to man and the militarizing of the police force isnt helping budgets.

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