Youth Crime: Reality Refuses to Cooperate
Judging from the mailer I got from my MP Pierre Poilievre, the Harper Conservatives are about to launching a slick new tough-on-crime campaign. Clearly they want people to forget about their fight with Elections Canada, the C-484 debacle, Cadscam, In-and-Out and the rest of their sordid affairs. When in doubt, drag up "law and order" or "tough on crime", the last refuge of right-wing scoundrels everywhere, when they have nothing else to run on.
The pity is, reality is refusing to cooperate - again. Canada's crime rate dropped 7% in 2007, after hitting a 25 year low in 2006. Even the youth crime rate dropped:
The youth crime rate, which has remained relatively stable over the past decade, declined 1.5% in 2007 following a 3.3% increase in 2006. The 2007 drop was due to a decrease in non-violent crimes. The youth violent crime rate remained stable in 2007 after increasing steadily over the past two decades. The 2007 rate was more than double the rate reported in the mid-1980s.[emphasis mine]The Conservatives don't want people to pay attention to the highlighted parts, they want people to concentrate on that last sentence - "The 2007 rate was more than double the rate reported in the mid-1980s".
From the mailer, they are using phrases like "Above the Law?" and "Age is no excuse" (I'll note that the mailer is a slick production - not the usual sleazy fare for Pierre - and must be part of a coordinated national campaign. Its also being mailed to the Caucus Office at 131 Queen in Ottawa and not to Pierre's constituency office as usual).
Again, reality isn't cooperating.
Lets look at the context for that rise in youth crime. A note from the Daily in October 2007 regarding the 2006 stats is enlightening:
The rate of youth aged 12 to 17 accused of homicide was at its highest point since 1961. A total of 84 young people were accused of homicide in 2006, 12 more than in 2005. However, the number of victims killed by a youth remained virtually unchanged.[emphasis mine]
The total number of youth murders in Canada in 2006 was 84. A change of 12 extra charges (but the same number of victims - meaning more accomplices) accounted, with the other rates of violent crime, for that 3.3% increase reported above. In other words:
While the rate of youth accused reached an all-time high in 2006, 5 years ago the rate was at a 30-year low. Youth accused of homicide can vary greatly from year to year, due to the relatively small number of youth who commit homicide.[emphasis mine]The rate of youth violent crime seems to vary widely because so few youth are involved in violent crime, even a few extra accused being arrested (but no more victims) can cause a large rise in the rate per 100 000.
It is interesting to note that in 2005, these small actual numbers in youth crime caused a 6% drop in the youth crime rate, including a 2% drop in the violent crime rate.
A similar situation occurred in adult crime in 2004. 2003 saw a 35-year-low in Canada's crime rate. In 2004, the rate was up because of a 230% rise in counterfeiting - caused by a single counterfeiter operating in Toronto. Again, our actual crime numbers are so low, even a single criminal can change the national crime rate.
That is the context and the reality of crime in Canada. Looking at the raw numbers shows that even in youth crime that is close to its highest since 1961, actual crimes are incredibly rare. Despite the fear, there are less than 80 youth murders in the entire country, out of 176 000 criminals 12 to 17.
So the question needs to be asked, where is the crime wave that requires a sudden overhaul of the youth justice system? Is a 'get tough' approach, with longer sentences and more youth in jail the best way to deal with the crime we already have?
Ironically, the Department of Justice's own website seems to counter the Conservatives belief in a get tough approach:
Myth: A "get tough" approach will reduce youth crime
Reality: Harsher criminal sanctions do not discourage youth from getting into trouble with the law.
The U.S. Surgeon General's recent study on youth violence concluded that boot camps, custodial programs with strict military-style rules, fail to make a positive difference and can actually increase the rate at which participants commit new crimes.  The same study found that youths transferred to adult criminal court are more likely to re-offend than young people who remain in juvenile courts.
In 2002, the federal government released a review of 111 studies on the effects of criminal justice sanctions on more than 442,000 offenders. It found that harsher punishments had no deterrent effect on repeat offences. In fact, it suggested that punishment caused a 3% increase in recidivism among all groups of offenders, including youth.
Another consideration is that a significant number of youth inmates have mental health problems and require treatment, not punishment.[emphasis mine]
Further, the Conservatives are claiming in the body of Bill C-25, An Act to Amend the Youth Criminal Justice Act, that the sentences are declining while the rate of crime is seemingly going up. But if you read the excellent overview of Canada's youth criminal justice system at Mapleleafweb, you'll notice something the Conservatives won't mention:
In 1997, the federal Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs reported that Canada's rate of youth incarceration was more than twice that of the United States, and 10 to 15 times higher (per one thousand youth population) than New Zealand, Australia, and many European countries (Source: Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs, 1997)
In short, despite our incarceration rate being 33% higher in 2002-2003 than in 1993-94, we still had one of the highest incarceration rates in the world when it comes to youth. Further, in C-25 the choice of years highlighted is interesting - 2002-2003 was the year before the Liberal's changes to the the Youth Criminal Justice Act became law. In 2004, incarceration had jumped back up and admission to probation had fallen sharply.
Once again, we have the Conservatives trying play on people's fears and misconceptions in order to gain power and push through their agenda. They have long thought that those 'damn kids need to be punished' or that they 'get away with murder' and they will find, spin and twist any kind of statistics to try to show that.
They want to foster the false impression that young thugs are running the streets committing horrible violent crimes - as the graphic picture of 3 masked youths in an alley on the mailer shows .
The reality is that youth crime is already so low that small year-to-year changes in raw numbers create large swings in the crime rate. The reality is that Canada already incarcerates its young offenders at rates higher than most Western countries, including the US. The reality is that actual studies in the US and Canada show that 'tough on crime' policies - as championed by the Conservatives - actually increase recidivism and the crime rates.
If the Conservatives were serious about doing something about youth crime, they would look at what the root causes are. They would use actual facts and studies to determine the best was to prevent and deal effectively with youth crime.
But they aren't serious about it.
They don't really care about the youth crime rate, they merely want to scare people into voting for them.
Don't get suckered in by Conservative propaganda. 'Tough on crime' for the relatively small numbers and prescribing policies that have been shown to not work to reduce crime (and may even increase it) is the wrong approach. Listen to the reality, not the Conservative spin.