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How do you count crime?

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OTTAWA — Canadians can be excused for being confused about the amount of crime in their society. Last year produced horrific scenes of people being murdered and their bodies dismembered, several executions in public places in Toronto, and the media reporting that shootings and stabbings in different cities are on the increase.

These headlines contradicted all of the articles that "crime is falling" published after the release of Statistics Canada’s recent annual Juristat survey of crime. What is a person to think?

Some of the answers are to be found in the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s just-released review of the Juristat reports. Many people think that measuring crime is a straightforward exercise, but it is not.

The first question is simply, How do you count crime? Besides its survey of police-reported crime, Statistics Canada also conducts a survey of whether Canadians were a victim of crime. These results for 2009 show a huge discrepancy with the amount of crime reported to police. In 2009, 7.4 million Canadians reported they were the victim of at least one of the eight specific crimes covered by the survey, compared with the police count of only two million total crimes.

This discrepancy mostly reflects that people say they report only 31 per cent of crimes to the police. The public is increasingly reluctant to report crime to the police, partly out of fear of retribution from criminals and partly out of frustration with falling rates of crime being solved by the police. For example, over the past four decades, the solve rate for murders has fallen from 95 per cent to 75 per cent, and is less than 50 per cent for gang-related killings. This growing reluctance to report crime to police leads to erroneous headlines that "crime is down." The real headline should read Canadians’ reporting of crime hits an all-time low.

There are other basic questions about how to count crime. Is a crime spree one crime or several? Statistics Canada selects only the most severe crime, but police services across the country increasingly are adopting the "all violations" method of counting. It is also important to note that Statistics Canada excludes the 113,100 drug crimes committed in 2011 from its overall crime count, which reduces the crime total appreciably.

There is also the question of whether to measure crime in absolute terms, or as a rate relative to the population. Crime rates could fall just because the population is growing faster than crime itself, which could still be rising in absolute terms. The latter is what the public experiences and perceives as the true volume of crime.

The next question is: What is the severity of crime? Statistics Canada has concocted a subjective Crime Severity Index that weights crime by the sentence handed down by the judge. The main problem with this measure is that more lenient sentences by judges could falsely lead to a drop in this measure of severity. This is not a hypothetical scenario: Parliament itself is increasingly legislating mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes. Additionally, if the sentence handed down is reduced by awarding credit for pre-trial custody, then the reported severity of the sentence may be reduced as well.

Finally, society must ask who commits the crime? It is well known in the justice system that a small number of repeat offenders commit much of the crime in this country, yet Statistics Canada fails to present statistics on this phenomenon. Collecting data on how many crimes were committed by persons with extensive criminal records or who were on bail or parole, or who were already subject to deportation for past crimes, would be a powerful accountability measurement for the justice system and could inform policy reforms to reduce crime.

Recent Juristat reports increasingly ignore the long-term trend in crime, and focus more on the change from the previous year. The long-term trends are discouraging and alarming. For example, the rate of violent crime in Canada has soared from 221 to 1,231 per 100,000 people over the past 40 years. It is this upward trend that is most relevant to Canadians, not whether crime is up or down a few percentage points from the previous year.

Understanding crime is itself a tool to enhance public safety. That is why Statistics Canada, in association with the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs and other interested bodies, should review and improve its collection and reporting of crime statistics.

Scott Newark is a former Crown prosecutor and executive officer of the Canadian Police Association. He is the author of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s recent study Police-reported Crime Statistics in Canada: Still More Questions than Answers.

 

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