A disconnect exists between the crime rate and Canadian’s perceptions of crime trends.
Annual statistics on police-reported crime released last week by Statistics Canada suggest the crime rate and crime severity index fell last year by three and four per cent, respectively.
The crime rate is now 17 per cent lower than a decade ago; the crime severity index is 22 per cent lower.
Despite this evidence to the contrary, many people still believe that the crime rate is rising.
Julian Roberts, a criminology professor at the University of Oxford, says the contrast between perception and reality is even more striking with respect to violent crime.
Roberts says one consequence of this misconception is a lack of confidence in the criminal justice system.
Another is a lingering fear of crime. Ironically, the group most likely to be overwhelmed by that fear is also responsible for one of the largest spikes in crime rates: Canada’s aging baby boom generation.
David K. Foot, author of Boom Bust and Echo: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift, was among the first academics to study the baby boomer’s impact on Canada’s institutions, including its criminal justice system.
Roger Boe, a researcher with Correctional Service of Canada, picked up on Foot’s work last year for a research paper on population aging and the federal inmate profile.
He points out that crime rates jumped significantly during the 1960s, ’70s and’80s as the baby boomers — all 9.8 million of them — entered the crime-prone age group, which lasts from the teenage years to around age 30.
Canada’s prison population also jumped dramatically during those years.
Crime rates began declining in 1991 as the last of the boomers entered their 30s. This, coupled with fewer youth in subsequent generations to take their place on the docket, has led lower crime rates.
Foot predicted that, as the boomers aged, the crime rate would decrease, fraud and white-collar crime would increase at the expense of violent crime, and fear of crime would rise because older people are generally more fearful of crime.
Reviewing those predictions, Boe concludes that the crime rate has declined in all major categories, but the boomers’ shift to fraud and white-collar crime never materialized.
He argues the fear of crime is the most dangerous shift we face in the coming years.
How well we manage that fear, he argues, will determine whether crime and incarceration rates continue to fall. And pursuing harsher criminal justice policies in unlikely to achieve that goal, he adds.
But that’s exactly the situation Canadians find themselves in. Rather than reassure Canadians about the criminal justice system, the federal government preys on their fears to justify spending $7 billion to $10 billion over the next five years to reform the country’s prison system.
Chief among the fearmongers is Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who states on his website that “our safe streets and healthy communities are increasingly under threat of gun, gang and drug violence.”
Research suggests fear of crime tends to be more pronounced among Canadians who believe they live in a neighbourhood where the crime rate is higher than elsewhere.
That would explain Toews, who represents a riding in Manitoba, which is first among the provinces in homicides, vehicle thefts and robberies and third in break-and-enters.
As for the rest of the aging boomers, news that the crime rate and crime severity index continue to decline should help them sleep more soundly at night and renew their confidence in Canada’s criminal justice system.
Cameron Kennedy is an Advocate editor.