COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT CRIME AND JUSTICE
 

1) CRIME IS ON THE RISE

No, it isn't. There was a noticeable rise in the crime rate from the end of the sixties to the end of the eighties, but since 1991 or so in North America crime in general has clearly been declining. If one looks at the "big picture" and extends the time series a bit, crime is, since the 1920's, in a free fall--especially violent crime. In that picture, the rise between 1960-1990 is hardly a blip on the radar.

Violent crime is falling, and continues to represent about 10% of official statistics.

Murders have been steadily declining since 1974. Canada's murder rate is remarkably low and steady at 2 per 100 000 persons. The rate in the USA is 7/100 000 and for comparison in South Africa it is 71/100 000.

2) CRIMINAL STATISTICS TELL THE WHOLE STORY

Well, in some cases they do, but in general there is a huge hidden figure of crime, and it varies according to time, region, type of crime, police activity, political attention, media attention, fictional representations of crime, etc.

For a variety of reasons, it so happens that victims of crime do not always report what happened to them to the police. Some crimes are reported in a majority of cases: car theft, for instance, because a police report is necessary to collect on auto insurance. Other crimes have dismal report rates, and rape is still one of those, even with the great efforts made at convincing victims to come forward, to make the process more victim-friendly, to remove the stigma of the crime.

Victim reports are the major flaw in criminal statistics, but another one is part of the very nature of what they measure: crime as seen by justice institutions. Police, for instance, almost never catch people in the act: they are dependent on witnesses and victims calling them. Then, in a large number of cases, they have discretion in charging those found at the scene. As an example, think of those "zero tolerance" for violence policies in public schools: what might have been a simple school fight is now a criminal act, and officially becomes a criminal statistic. Can we then say that the rate of violent crime in schools has gone up? Not really. And later those charged with crimes are processed in the system and may end up in detention facilities, wich may see a rise in their clientele: but it is not an accurate portrait of reality.

What criminal statistics measure best, then, is the activity of the justice system.

Well, I did say that in some cases they do give a good picture of reality. I'm thinking mostly about murder (!), where typically the dark figure is very small. Murder rates are therefore a relatively good basis of comparison between areas or countries. However, we must be careful when comparing murder rates historically: medecine has made huge steps and today's emergency rooms have made the murder rate decline sharply. To make historical comparisons (as I did in #1 above) one must take in account attempts, motives, situations where the crimes occur, etc.

3) POLICE ACTIVITY AND VISIBILITY REDUCE CRIME

No, they don't. There are now entire libraries of research on the subject, and as it turns out, doing more policing or putting more "cops on the beat" has zero effect on overall crime rates--it may, at best, temporarily displace some forms of criminal activity. This is not a matter of opinion: I know of no research who has ever contradicted this. As far as visibility is concerned, we have known since 1974 that doubling or halving patrol activity has no effect on local crime rates whatsoever. Why are politicians always talking about strengthening the police forces? Because the public wants it. Why does the public want it? Because politicians have nothing else to suggest that is quite as easy to explain and sell.

There is only one way to affect crime rates through policing: community policing. And one must be careful when this buzzword is being thrown around: it seems just about anything can be called "community policing" on the sole basis that it happens to be done in a community. Community policing can be recognized by three main characteristics:

a) Officers identify and find ways to rectify the underlying sources of criminality in their area. And this does not mean arresting criminals: it means that too, of course, but when this is the main focus what is really being done is opening opportunities for others to take their place. That is actually counter-productive and not simply ineffective: it creates brand new criminals. Making arrests should be a secondary objective.

b) Police authority is decentralized and closer to citizens. Implication of citizens is crucial, and that means accepting (some of) their suggestions, not simply "informing them" of pre-decided plans.

c) Everyone, including suspects, is treated as a citizen and employer of the police. This is a philosophy rather than a strategy, and is more difficult to implement.

There are few, if any, actual police forces modeled after these principles. What we are witnessing today is on the contrary an agressive militarization of the police: helicopters, beefed-up and enlarged SWAT teams, emphasis on the multiplication and diversification of weapons, repressive tactics, etc. One thing criminology can predict with absolute certainty: this will not work (although I suppose it depends on what one means by "work:" it is sure to be politically effective).

Finally, we must be careful not to expect immediate and clear reductions in crime: this is not a panacea or a miracle solution. Its main effects are to reduce the citizen's fear of crime and feeling of impotence and to give officers more self-esteem and a feeling of accomplishment; not a mathematical reduction in crime, but an improvement in the quality of life.

4) POLICE OFFICERS FIGHT CRIME

In Canada, they mostly patrol (70% of their time) and write reports (25%), and neither of these activities has an effect on crime. Officers consider that 17% of the calls they respond to are of a "criminal nature;" they are actually confronted to 50 to 100 ongoing criminal situations per year, and make on average 10 to 20 arrests per year. This is why augmenting the police force will have no effect on crime: even if you doubled it, you would be doubling a tiny iota of actual crime-fighting activity--and we have seen above that even that is not effective. Doubling zero still adds up to zero.

5) PUNISHMENT DETERS FROM CRIME

This is true only under the most ideal conditions possible, i.e. not on this planet. If you have immediate cause to believe that punishment will be instantaneous should you commit crime x, then you will probably refrain from doing so (probably but not certainly: you may be trying to make a point that makes perfect sense in your own head). Otherwise, research demonstrates that in the real world playing with the severity of sentences has no effect on crime rates. Of course, it is probably safe to assume that if there were suddenly no punishment at all crime might rise (although I don't know that this hypothesis has ever been scientifically tested). But this is not a sufficient demonstration of the effectiveness of deterrence to support toughening the penal system: it only supports having a system at all.

Actually, the crimes we punish most harshly, essentially crimes of violence, are the crimes where the perpetrator is least likely to take the time to consider the consequences of his or her actions, and/or most likely to have what he or she deems to be overwhelmingly good reasons to act anyway (e.g. "having nothing to loose"). At any rate, whatever the explanation, there isn't a single historical case of a crime rate going down because of newly toughened sentences.

6) MOST PEOPLE SUPPORT THE DEATH PENALTY

Actually, they don't. Polls show that while a majority of Canadians (70-80%) support the reinstatement of the death penalty, this proportion is cut in half when the hypothetical statement, "what if it could be demonstrated that the death penalty has no deterrent effect" is added. Further, even strong supporters of the death penalty are extremely unlikely to actually apply it to specific hypothetical cases in controlled studies.

Personally, I don't see how we can morally even discuss the possiblity of reinstatement before we are certain that our justice system is 100% right 100% of the time (do not count on DNA to solve that problem, it will not). Killing innocents is murder, and if the state does it in our name, because we have demanded it, then we are guilty of it. And if we are all guilty of premeditated murder, then we should all get the death penalty (that is one instance where crime will certainly drop dramatically).

Beyond that, assuming for a moment that we had the fool-proof system needed to avoid becoming all murderers, there are still major problems with the idea:

a) it does not deter, in fact it may compound and legitimize an entire category of motives common to murderers: he or she deserved it, they were evil, etc. Studies have called this the "brutalizing effect" of capital punishment.

b) Other than those who were actually innocent, there are also those who did the deed, but couldn't prove that it was not quite the offense that death is meant to punish: not really murder, but manslaughter, etc.

c) It is common knowledge that the performance of your lawyer is a major factor in your conviction.

d) It is common knowledge that a strong racial bias exists in both the charge laid on perpetrators, their conviction and their sentence.

e) Inside the deterrence logic, ask yourself this: if one capital offense is committed, what remains to deter the perpetrator from committing others? You are in fact encouraged to do your best to kill any remaining witnesses, for instance, as well as the police officers who try to arrest you, crown attorneys, judges, etc.

7) PAROLE RELEASE FLOODS SOCIETY WITH DANGEROUS CRIMINALS

It doesn't. Not only does parole release succeed in 82% of cases in Canada (and the majority of the "failures" are people who did things that are not criminal, like breaking their curfew), but it seems that the longer we wait to grant it the less successful it is. To be sure, one would like to see a 100% success rate. However, pragmatically speaking, on this planet as I like to say, we also need to make sure that the cure is not worse than the disease. Cutting out parole, as some US states have done for some crimes, actually reverses the proportion of success: in some counties of California for some crimes the re-offense rate after full term sentences is over 90%. Statistics shmatistics, maybe, but what can we expect, really, when someone who in prison has made new circles of "friends," learned new tricks and forgot the little he or she knew about how to live in society is kicked out of the door with no supervision and no help? It may feel good to be unflinchingly tough, but it does not work. If you had to choose between your principles and the safety of your kids, which one would it be?

8) THE CANADIAN PENAL SYSTEM IS TOO LENIENT

Canada is in fact #2 in the world in terms of incarceration rates. The only country that emprisons more than we do is the US (and it doesn't seem to help with their crime rate either: on any given year big cities there have more murders than Canada in its entirety). What is more, 85% of the 20 000 provincial inmates and 22% of the 14 000 federal inmates have not committed violent crimes. People do not seem to realize that the incarceration rate is that high, and don't have the faintest idea who pays for it: 2 billion dollars each and every year. "Leniency" of course is a subjective evaluation, but I for one would rather see my taxes spent on schools and hospitals, especially given the results.