Sunday, January 08, 2006

Hard cases

We've seen a remarkable piling-on by three of the four top party leaders this past week, as they scrambled like the proverbial crabs in a bucket to out-tough each other on the crime issue. Gilles Duceppe stayed wisely aloof, for whatever reason: maybe he knows better. But Stephen Harper, Paul Martin and now Jack Layton are in hard-guy mode, and they've got it all: minimum sentences, stiffer penalties, you name it. And lots more cops, of course, not to mention arming our customs officers. No soft-on-crime nonsense is going to mess up the three-way races. Criminals, tremble. Your time is coming.

It seems, though, that the "criminal community" has shown remarkable prescience: bracketing for a moment the dreadful series of recent handgun homicides in Toronto, of which the young gunsels themselves have been predominantly the victims, its members seem to have been taking an extended holiday. Never mind David Frum: Chris Selley and a conservative commentator named "2sheds" have demolished his preposterous claim that Canada has a 50% higher crime rate than the United States. Check out the Ottawa Citizen’s Dan Gardner instead, a man whose detailed fact-finding and sober comments have earned my respect.

Crime is dropping, folks—even in Toronto. In Gardner's words, and a good many of them deserve to be quoted here,

By far the most common crime committed with a gun in Toronto is robbery. In 1992, there were 1,111 robberies involving firearms. In 2004, the latest year for which Statistics Canada has data, there were 625. That's a 44-per-cent drop. (Note that the Statistics Canada data err on the side of inclusion: Any incident in which a firearm was present is recorded, even if the firearm wasn't used in the crime.)

The next most common gun crime is "assault with weapon." In 1992, there were 185 such incidents in Toronto. In 2004, there were 77. That's a 59-per-cent decline. In 1992, there were 44 kidnappings involving a firearm. In 2004, there were 21. That's a 53-per-cent decline. In 1992, there were 31 aggravated assaults with a firearm. In 2004, there were 26.

In 1992, 46 common assaults occurred in which a firearm was present. In 2004, there were 32.

Several other categories of gun crime -- including sexual assault and "discharge firearm with intent" -- were rare and showed little change in either direction. The same was true of attempted murders with a firearm: In 1992, there were 41; in 2004, there were 41.

It should be noted that these numbers make things look worse than they really are because they don't take into account Toronto's population growth since 1992. If that were accounted for, the declines in gun crime would look even bigger and the numbers that stayed flat would actually reveal declines in the rate of gun crime.

But leaving all that aside, we are still left with the horrendous toll of 52 gun killings in 2005, a record high and a dramatic jump from 17 such killings in 1992.

It is important to realize, however, that this increase is not a long-term trend. The 2004 total of gun killings was just 24. And in each of the three years leading up to 2005, the number of gun killings actually dropped. So the rise in gun murders in 2005 is a very sudden spike.

There are two ways of looking at that spike. One is to see it as evidence of a broad shift -- proof that gun crime and violence are exploding across the city and that people are in more danger. If this is true, it deserves to be a major political issue and it may require major changes to the criminal justice system.

But there isn't any evidence to support that view and plenty to suggest it's wrong. For one thing, the spike is totally out of line with the trend in gun murders. And since there have been no reports of spikes in other gun crimes, it also seems to be out of line with the trend in other gun crimes as well (although we won't know that for sure until Toronto's 2005 data for other gun crimes are gathered by Statistics Canada.)

It's also out of line with a decline in gun crime that has been going on fairly steadily for decades. In 1977, 39 per cent of all robberies involved a firearm; in 2004, just 14 per cent of robbers carried a gun.

Gun murders dropped even more dramatically: In 1974, the rate of such killings was a little more than 1.2 per 100,000 people; in 2004, it was less than 0.6.

Now, what can be done about uncomfortable facts like this on the campaign trail? As Kim Campbell once put it, a campaign is no time to discuss serious issues, and the three leaders have clearly taken her words to heart. Follow the public mood, created in no small part by the media, pretend that crime is out of control when it's actually dropping, and out-heavy the other guys. It's miserable politics, and it makes for lousy public policy.

That isn’t to say that we turn away from the subject, only that we stick to "just the facts, Ma'am" when we address it. For example, our border guards are too often left alone in isolated posts to deal with cross-border traffic. (A few years ago it was reported to me that under-trained summer students were occasionally assigned to lonely border crossings; I'll be updating on this issue shortly).

The issue of smuggled weapons, and the exposed state of our borders and border guards do need to be addressed. But so do the social causes of crime, or we end up in reactive mode, treating the symptoms and not the disease. Poverty, racism, and lack of educational and employment opportunities are all factors, whether the "hit 'em hard" crowd wants to admit it or not. And, of course, those factors can generate attitudes and actions in the sub-populations affected that influence the crime rate.

So what is to be done? At least Layton has a relatively balanced approach, calling for increased law-enforcement and punishment on the one hand, and social improvements on the other. But he, too, has been corralled by the campaign and the political environment, and there he is, calling for such things as minimum sentences, while the rest of the world has been trending away from that kind of thing.

A crackdown on crime in the midst of a falling crime rate is, on its face, fatuous. In 2003, the homicide rate in Canada was the lowest in three decades. Turning the current Toronto spike into a nation-wide trend is sheer dishonesty. Furthermore, there is no proof that throwing more young people into jail makes our land any safer. In Ontario, Mike Harris’ late, unlamented regime delivered the Safe Schools Act, a Procrustean approach to student behaviour that has led to numerous mandatory expulsions for the very individuals most in need of institutional guidance. As for minimum sentences, much like the infamous US "three strikes and you're out" legislation, sheer injustice is too often the result. In one province of Australia that brought in mandatory sentencing (now repealed), the preponderance of those sentenced were young Aborigine adults. Nor, it appears, are such laws even effective in their explicit crime-prevention aims.

The current unseemly display of political leaders jumping on the punishment bandwagon is a dangerous affront to the truth, and it perpetuates a largely media-generated social panic. The reality is that, just as hard cases make bad law, hard laws make bad cases. The media and the politicians need to start talking facts, not fears. Come on, Jack—you’re better than this.

UPDATE (January 8, 2006): Dan Gardner of the Ottawa Citizen, referenced above, has an excellent website containing an archive of his articles. They are simply stuffed with facts and figures on such issues as crime and the drug trade. Visit it here.


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