Canada’s homicide rate hits a 44-year low

November 11th, 2011

Statistics Canada reported recently that Canada’s homicide rate is at a 44-year low. We spoke to criminology professor Scot Wortley about why—and about why our perceptions of safety don’t reflect the fact that we’re safer than we’ve been in decades. Wortley has conducted research on a wide range of topics including racial profiling, attitudes toward police and courts, street gangs and the relationship between immigration status and criminal justice. He has served on numerous violence prevention commissions.

How do we explain the fact that the homicide rate is down?

Probably a number of different factors converged. We have an aging population. Homicide and crime in general is highly concentrated among young people. We’ve had a reduction in domestic violence. Back in the 1960s and 1970s violence that took place in the private home was much more prevalent than it is today. There have been new strategies in policing that may have contributed to the drop, including policing of neighbourhoods where high volumes of crimes take place. I’m a little apprehensive about giving the police too  much of the credit, because I believe it’s a combination of factors contributing to the drop. Over the past few years there has been increased spending on a number of crime prevention programs that target youth in disadvantaged communities. These are programs that try to target the risk factors for violence among young people and prevent violence before it happens. I think we may be reaping the benefits of those programs right now.

It’s interesting to note that the decline is not isolated to Toronto. We are seeing a decline across the country and in the United States. The North American population overall is more educated and may be developing better conflict resolution skills.

Why does it feel like it’s less safe than ever out there?

This is one of the interesting things that we as criminologists are often asked to explain. We just recently did a survey in Toronto. We asked “do you think crime has increased or decreased in the last 10 years? The vast majority of Toronto residents—in the 80 to 90 per cent range—believe that crime is much worse now than it was 10 years ago.

There are probably a number of factors that contribute to that perception, but I believe it’s primarily the impact of the media. Compared to 20 or 30 years ago, coverage of crime is a much larger proportion of all news coverage.

We live in the age of the remote control, when people can change the channel quickly when a news program loses their interest. If you do crime stories, that will capture the audience. If your news is dominated with political, economic or human interest stories, you’re going to lose viewership.

This means we hear about the crimes that do take place in much more detail. We receive much more sensationalistic coverage. We receive the gory details.

We did a study of newspaper coverage a few years ago and found that there was a new homicide reported every single day in the Toronto newspaper. That was interesting because that year there were only 68 homicides in Toronto. So how can a new one appear every day?

The answer is that if there wasn’t a local homicide to report, they went outside the city. We found that 40 per cent of the homicides reported were American. This gives the impression to someone who is getting all of their information about crime from the newspaper, or from the TV news, that crime is everywhere.

Are there other factors contributing to this perception?

I also think there are a couple of players that benefit a great deal from fear of crime. The private security industry is a multi-billion dollar industry in North America. They want us to feel insecure because then we’re going to spend more money securing our homes and vehicles.

Law enforcement also benefits from fear of crime. We’ve seen police budgets and budgets for the public safety agenda increase dramatically over the last 20 years in this city and in other cities. I find it interesting that the Toronto Police Service remains largely silent in commenting on the drop in the crime rate. It’s interesting that when crime appears to be going up—when we have a rash of shootings or gang-related activity—the police are front and centre assuring the public that they are going to do all they can to fight the scourge of crime. But they’re very reluctant to deliver good news. They’re very reluctant to come out and say, “You’re safe on the streets, the crime rate is down.” I wonder if that reluctance is somehow linked to a concern that if the public becomes complacent about crime, if the public argues that their money should be spent elsewhere, that their economic power would be eroded.

Crime has also become a very prevalent issue in modern politics. If you followed the last federal election, you saw the Conservative government champion themselves as the promoters of public safety and as the party that was going to bring criminals to justice. When that kind of rhetoric is so prevalent among our community leaders, it does have an impact on public perception.

It sounds like our fear of crime isn’t necessarily justified. But what is an individual to do? Especially as it relates to parenting, it seems as if there’s a kind of groupthink mentality at work. Even if you wanted to let your kids walk to school alone, or play unsupervised, you’d be criticized by other parents.

As a new parent myself, I think about these things. I think about my childhood. From the time I was six or seven years old, my mom would open the door and say “don’t come back till lunch.” You’d get on your bike and you’d go on adventures. That doesn’t happen anymore.

The unfortunate thing is that obsession with personal safety also directly erodes civic life and people’s willingness to engage with their neighbours. We’ve become a society of cocooners who travel to work or to particular leisure spots but don’t engage in the city.

We may be increasing the safety of our children, but we’re probably also contributing directly to the epidemic of childhood and adolescent obesity that North America is experiencing.

I want to reemphasize the power of the media here. One story, one horrendous crime, particularly when it impacts individuals who “should be” safe, has a profound impact on how people view the society they live in.

I work up in the Jane and Finch and Weston-Mount Dennis neighbourhoods. I’ve seen a lot of tragic homicides in these areas. But the average Canadian citizen is not impacted by these homicides. They view them as incidents that happen in bad neighbourhoods: “As long as it stays in Jane and Finch it really doesn’t impact me.” But a tragedy like the Jane Creba shooting leads to a level of hysteria and a level of public outcry that we rarely witness in similar tragedies involving poor minorities. I think that says a lot about our society and the value we put on the lives of particular citizens.

You mentioned crime has become a hot issue in modern politics. There has been some talk in the media lately about whether prisons should focus on punishment or rehabilitation and what sorts of services and perks are appropriate. Does the nature of prison life affect the crime rate?

Canada’s history of treating offenders rather than punishing them might be one of the factors that has contributed to the fact that we have a much lower crime rate than the United States. It’s one of the great differences between us: the violent crime rate is much lower in Canada and much lower in major Canadian cities than it is in major American cities. A possible explanation for that is that the American system has historically been quite punitive with less emphasis put on rehabilitation, whereas Canada has an international reputation for being one of the world’s leaders in rehabilitation and treatment of offenders.

Unfortunately it appears that legacy might be eroding. Under current changes in legislation from the federal government we might see a very dramatic increase in the overall number of offenders doing time in Canada. We may see an increase in the number of prisons. The cost of that growth may preclude further emphasis on rehabilitation.

We can look to the United States, to places where punitive legislation like “three strikes and you’re out” has been enacted. In California, for instance, this led to a gigantic increase in the prison population. But at the same time you’re increasing the cost of corrections, you’re also promising tax cuts or no tax increases. How are you going to pay for this?

California went bankrupt, didn’t it?

Yes, but before the state went bankrupt the government greatly cut back on social programs, education, public health care and public housing. All the social infrastructure that contributes to a low crime rate was gradually eroded to pay for prisons. Unfortunately, what you may be doing in such a circumstance is creating the very conditions that produce crime—deep poverty, hopelessness, lack of economic and educational opportunities, lack of housing, lack of nutrition. This may be good if you’re in the prison business—you’re creating the social conditions that will ensure crime always exists and that you will always have a steady supply of offenders to fill prisons.

We’ll have to wait and see the extent that these new legislative innovations impact our correctional system and what impact they have on the funding of our social safety net.

Police tape. Photo: Tony Webster, flickr.com

 

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