Stockwell Day, the Conservative cabinet minister who is being skewered for his answers today to questions about the government’s plans to spend billions more on new prisons, when police-reported crime rates are declining, got something dead right. Day was bang on when he said lots of crime goes unreported. That’s wholly, completely, totally accurate. The problem is, unreported crime has absolutely nothing – nadda, zippo, zilch – to do with plans to build more prisons and lock up more people for longer sentences. And that’s Day’s big problem, because he drew a big, fat intersecting line from one to the other, as if they were shadow and shape in a kid’s activity book matching game.
Day was ostensibly holding a news conference to talk about the rebounding economy. Things were humming along smoothly as he explained that the government doesn’t want to send confusing signals to citizens and markets about Ottawa’s commitment to cutting the deficit. Day’s Seadoo hit rough water when CBC reporter Terry Milewski asked how the Conservative government can be taken seriously when it’s prepared to blow billions more on prisons at a time when the latest stats show declining police-reported crime. Isn’t that a confusing signal? Milewski asked.
We’re very concerned about the increase in the amount of unreported crimes that surveys clearly show.
Day has this partly right. The last victimization survey reported by Statistics Canada, in 2004, showed that roughly two thirds of all crimes are never reported to police. A new survey is expected to be released in September and, unless Day’s had a sneak peek, we don’t know if it shows an increase in unreported crime. To be fair, there are some scary numbers in the 2004 report. In total, nearly 5 million crimes, the bulk of them non-violent property offences, were not reported to police.
There are clearly problems with the reporting of some violent crimes. The study suggests that nearly 450,000 sexual assaults were NOT reported to police. Victims reported 42,000 sexual assaults, or about 8% of the true level of crime in that category. And the reporting of crime had declined in 2004, compared to the previous survey. StatsCan noted:
The survey also revealed that fewer victims of criminal offences are reporting the incidents to police. In 1999, 37% of all incidents were reported to police. By 2004, this had slipped to 34%.
This was the result of a decline in reporting of property-related offences, such as breaking and entering, theft of motor vehicles or parts, and personal property thefts. Reporting to police has remained fairly stable for violent victimization, thefts of household property and vandalism.
Day went on to give his government credit for the falling police-reported crime stats, because they’ve put lots of resources into”preventative” measures, he said; which seemed a bit contradictory since he had just criticized those same crime stats for failing to capture all that unreported crime. If those numbers aren’t reliable, as Day seemed to be suggesting, then why rely on them to backslap yourself for your crime prevention initiatives? And, if there are many crimes unreported, then clearly the “preventative” measures are failing to prevent a heap of crime. Who takes the rap for that?
Day pressed on, repeating that the failure of citizens to report some crimes is alarming and shows that the government can’t take “a Liberal view to crime which is … some would suggest, that it’s barely happening at all. We still have situations, too many situations of criminal activity that are alarming to our citizens and we intend to continue to deal with that.”
Day didn’t elaborate further but it seems that ‘dealing with that’ – public concern about crime – will be done by building more prisons. Maybe Day imagines that the sight of more penitentiaries, once built to impart “terror to evildoers,” will have some deterrent effect on those crooks committing crimes that are never reported to police. That seems unlikely. What’s more likely, is that many crooks will go on commiting crimes, in part, because they know the chance of getting caught is low and the the chance that the crime will never even be reported to police is roughly two out of three, or even higher in the case of some specific crime categories.
This is clearly the bigger problem that Day said nothing about. The government needs to take serious, concerted steps to reduce the likelihood that citizens won’t report crimes. There’s plenty of research on this issue. It typically shows that citizens don’t report because they believe the crime isn’t serious; because they believe police won’t or can’t do anything; and, in the case of some serious crimes, victims fear the shame and anxiety of being dragged into a criminal justice process that they don’t understand and they don’t believe is sensitive to their needs.
Of course, none of these factors has anything to do with building more prisons.
Here’s a YouTube video that appeared soon after Day’s baffling news conference (though the video wrongly suggests that unreported crime is imaginary):
Statistics Canada’s 2004 victimization report