There’s plenty of intriguing and heartening news in the latest national crime report. This week, Statistics Canada released its annual compendium of data, based on information provided to hundreds of police departments across the country. Many media reports seized on the simple, big-picture stats: the overall crime rate reached its lowest level since the early 1970s. It would be wrong to key on this as the most important finding. It may be the least useful statistic and likely tells us absolutely nothing about whether the true level of crime has declined in the past 40 years and whether communities are any safer now than they were in the 70s.
There is a stat that appears to tell us exactly what many people would hope to hear: Canada is a safer place today than it was decades ago. The new data reveals that the murder rate in 2010 hit its lowest level in half a century. There were 554 homicides, a 10% decline from 2009, giving us a national murder rate of 1.62 per 100,000 people. The pace at which members of a society kill one another is often considered a barometer of overall violence. Homicides are one of the few crimes where we can safely assume that the the police-reported stats capture what is actually happening in society – that is, few murders are perpetrated in secret and remain unknown to authorities. This is not true of most other crime stats, as is well documented in the victimization survey that StatsCan also completes every five years. It suggests that a whopping two thirds of most crimes are never reported to police. Most of this ‘unreported crime’ is non-violent property offences like break-ins and bike thefts. Sexual assaults are an exception. They are a violent crime that is significantly under-reported. Roughly nine out of every 10 sex assaults is never reported to police, according to the victimization survey.
Which brings us back to murder. We know how many killings are committed every year in Canada and we have stats on this going back 50 years. For most other crimes, like sexual assault, we really don’t know how many were being committed in 1975 and we still don’t know in 2011. We know only how many were reported to police. (And don’t forget the complicating factor that over the past 50 years, criminal law in Canada has evolved dramatically. In the mid 1970s, for instance, many sexual acts weren’t crimes because of our arcane and misogynistic laws that have since been revised. Until the 1980s, for instance, a teenage girl who was a victim of forced sex had to prove she was a virgin in order to substantiate a charge of rape.)
So the murder rate is down to its lowest level in 45 years. Fewer people, as a proportion of our expanding population, are being slain, despite the explosion in gang activity, the rise of outlaw bikers and the pervasiveness of mobsters. The stats don’t tell us why this is so, though demographers will tell you it may have something to do with an aging population (seniors commit fewer crimes). But it tells us fairly clearly that the screeching right wing rant that we need to return to the ‘good ‘ol days’ of being tough on crime is plain wrong. In the ‘good ‘ol days’ in Canada you were more likely to be murdered than you are today.
Don’t forget that in the late 1960s and 70s, when the murder rate was higher, we still had on the books in Canada the ultimate penalty for homicide – capital punishment. It was abolished in 1976. In the mid 1970s, the murder rate was roughly double today’s rate.
WHAT’S A CRIME?
Not every ‘crime’ reported to police is logged by police as a crime and therefore, doesn’t show up in these official reports from StatsCan. If, for example, John Q. Public reports that his neighbour Jim Q. Public, with whom he’s feuding, has assaulted him and police investigate, determine the assault didnt’ happen, then they’ll likely deem the report ‘unfounded.’ This incident would not be logged by the police department as an assault and would not be reported to StatsCan as a crime.