OTTAWA - Fewer crimes were reported to police in Canada in 2011 than at any other time in the last 40 years, Statistics Canada said Tuesday — a revelation that comes as political leaders wrestle with how to curb gun violence on the streets of Toronto.
Finding an answer to that question — Mayor Rob Ford met Monday with Premier Dalton McGuinty, then Tuesday with Prime Minister Stephen Harper — should be the focal point of the debate, not the numbers, according to at least one crime expert.
Though the city's wounds are still raw from two recent deadly shootings, the agency reported that the seriousness of crime in Toronto was down last year, as it was in almost every major Canadian city.
And while the overall homicide rate was up seven per cent — there were 598 homicides in Canada in 2011, 44 more than the previous year — the number in Ontario actually hit record lows.
Altogether, police services reported nearly 2 million incidents last year, about 110,000 fewer than in 2010, the agency reported.
The decline in the crime rate was driven mostly by decreases in property offences, mischief, break-ins and car theft. But the severity of crime index — a tool used to measure the extent of serious crime in Canada — also declined by six per cent.
"Overall, this marked the eighth consecutive decrease in Canada’s crime rate," the study said. "Since peaking in 1991, the crime rate has generally been decreasing, and is now at its lowest point since 1972."
Not surprisingly, the Conservatives took credit for the decline Tuesday, attributing falling crime rates over the last four decades to the government's tough-on-crime agenda, which is just six years old.
"These statistics show that our tough on crime measures are starting to work. Our government is stopping the revolving door of the criminal justice system," said Julie Carmichael, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.
"The fact of the matter is that when the bad guys are kept in jail longer, they are not out committing crimes and the crime rate will decrease. However, there is still more work to do."
The New Democrats said that focus was misplaced, and should be on crime prevention instead.
"Things like arguing that we need more laws to create longer penalties or minimum sentences don't have any impact on the kind of things we've seen in Toronto," said NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison.
"People who are responsible for the shootings obviously didn't care about the consequences or they wouldn't have committed those acts in public."
The debate does need to move beyond how long to keep a criminal in jail and move to how he or she gets there in the first place, said Irvin Waller, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa.
"We don't need any more debate on the Criminal Code," Waller said.
"What you see with all the shemozzle in Toronto is that folks aren't looking at real solutions. Real solutions are things that reduce shootings and reduce homicides and that means you have to look at what has worked to do that."
Waller said it's important for all sides to approach the police-reported crime statistics with caution, given that other surveys show the vast majority of crimes actually never get reported to police.
In 2009, the latest year of available statistics, it was estimated that about two-thirds of all criminal victimization was not reported to police, Statistics Canada said.
That number is often cited by the Conservatives as the basis for their tough-on-crime agenda.
Earlier this year, they passed into law a major piece of crime legislation, the Safe Streets and Communities Act.
Among other things, it increased penalties for crimes involving drugs and the sexual exploitation of children.
"They're correct to have used the statistics, but I don't think that (the bill) was a significant way of reducing what they were calling attention to," said Waller.
The seven per cent increase in homicides is almost certainly tied to an increase in gun and gang crime, said Waller.
"What's clear to me is that even if (the bill) will change it, we need something else," he said. "We're living in a period where people are saying you can't arrest your way out of this crime — you've got to tackle the risk factors that lead to this crime."
Rather than focusing on statistics, the government needs to pay attention to the slew of other information it has at its disposable, Waller said, which includes pages of research on programs designed to stop people from becoming criminals.
Ford met Monday with McGuinty and Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair and secured permanent funding for anti-violence programs from the province in the wake of the two deadly shootings there.
Two people were killed and 23 wounded in a mass shooting at a community barbecue in east Toronto last week.
Last month, two men died after a gunman opened fire June 2 in the food court of the Toronto Eaton Centre, one of Toronto's most popular shopping destinations.
While the crime rates in Toronto are dropping, other cities are seeing a spike, Statistics Canada reported.
Winnipeg had a six per cent increase in the severity of violent crime, giving it the highest rank among census metropolitan areas.
Five other census metropolitan areas recorded increases in the seriousness of violent crime with the largest being reported in Gatineau, Que., and Guelph, Ont.
Western provinces generally reported higher crime rates and crime severity than those in the east.
The volume and severity of police-reported crime were highest in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut and lowest in Ontario.
Statistics Canada also reported decreases in several major crime categories, including attempted murder, major assaults, sexual assaults, robberies, break-ins and motor vehicle thefts.
The agency cautioned that many factors can influence police-reported crime statistics, including local policing policies and various demographic, social and economic factors, as well as public perception and attitudes.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled Prof. Irvin Waller's first name.
The 9 Key Changes In The Tory Crime Bill
With files from <em>The Canadian Press</em>. (CP/Alamy)
9. Bringing Prisoners Home
Provides the government, through the minister of Public Safety, more discretion to decide if a Canadian imprisoned abroad can transfer home to serve his or her sentence. (Getty)
8. Rights For Terror Victims
Introduces new measures to allow victims of terrorist acts to sue responsible individuals, groups or state sponsors in Canadian courts. (Alamy)
7. Denying Work Permits
Gives the Immigration minister new powers to deny work permits to foreigners based on the rationale they may be exploited. (Alamy)
6. Victims Get More Say In Parole
Provides victims of crime more say in parole decisions under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. Increases size of parole board by 25 per cent. (Alamy)
5. Fewer Conditional Sentences
Reduces sharply the use of conditional sentences, such as house arrest, for a variety of property and other offences. (Jupiter Images)
4. Pardons Harder To Get
Changes the pardons system and makes certain ex-convicts, such as some sex offenders and repeat offenders, ineligible for life. Essentially doubles the waiting period for pardon eligibility to five years for summary offences and 10 years for indictable offences. Replaces the term "pardon" by "record suspension." (Alamy)
3. Harsher Sentences For Young Offenders
Sets tougher penalties for young offenders, including mandatory consideration of adult sentences and possible publication ban removal for violent crimes. Expands the definition of violent crime to include reckless acts that don't actually cause harm. (Alamy)
2. Mandatory Minimums For Sex Crimes
Establishes new mandatory minimum sentences and longer maximums for sex crimes against minors, including the addition of two new offences related to grooming or luring minors. (Alamy)
1. Mandatory Minimums For Drug Crimes
Provides new mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences related to production and distribution, including mandatory sentences for growing as few as six pot plants. Doubles maximum sentences to 14 years from seven. Offers potential exemptions for those entering drug treatment programs. (Getty)
15 Things Critics Fear In The Tory Crime Bill
Opposition parties, professionals working within the corrections and justice systems, the Canadian Bar Association and various other interest groups have raised wide-ranging concerns about the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/news/omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">omnibus crime bill</a>. Here is an overview of some of their objections. (CP/Alamy)
15. Harsher Sentences For Young Offenders
Changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act will impose tougher sentences for violent and repeat young offenders, make it easier to keep such offenders in custody prior to trial and expand the definition of what is considered a "violent offence" to include "creating a substantial likelihood of causing bodily harm" rather than just causing, attempting to cause or threatening to cause bodily harm. The new legislation will also require the Crown to consider adult sentences for offenders convicted of "serious violent offences" and require judges to consider lifting the publication ban on names of offenders convicted of "violent offences" even when they have been given youth sentences. Some of the concerns around these provisions raised by some of the professionals who work with young offenders include: (Alamy)
14. Young Offenders - Naming Names
The publication of names of some young offenders will unjustly stigmatize them for life. Quebec has asked that provinces be allowed to opt out of this provision. (Getty)
13. Young Offenders - Stiffer Sentences
Stiffer, longer sentences will turn young offenders into hardened criminals and undermine any potential for rehabilitation. (Alamy)
12. Young Offenders - Minorities Take The Brunt
As with other parts of the crime bill, critics says harsher sentencing rules and increased emphasis on incarceration will <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/20/bill-c-10-omnibus-crime_n_1289536.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">disproportionately affect aboriginal</a> and black Canadians, who are already over-represented in the criminal justice system. (Alamy)
11. Young Offenders - Forget Rehabilitation
The changes shift the emphasis of the Act from rehabilitation to "protection of society," which critics say will put the focus on punishing young offenders rather than steering them away from a life of crime. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/11/22/crime-bill-quebec-canada_n_1107717.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">Quebec, in particular, which prides itself on the success of the rehabilitative aspects of its youth justice system, has argued for stronger language prioritizing rehabilitation</a>. (Alamy)
10. Fewer Conditional Sentences
The legislation will eliminate conditional sentences, those served in the community or under house arrest, for a range of crimes, including sexual assault, manslaughter, arson, drug trafficking, kidnapping and fraud or theft over $5,000. It will also eliminate double credit for time already served. Critics say these changes will: (Getty)
9. Fewer Conditional Sentences - Spike Costs
Cost the federal and provincial justice and corrections systems millions of additional dollars a year. The parliamentary budget officer, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/28/omnibus-crime-bill-costs-conditional-sentences_n_1306528.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">Kevin Page, has estimated that the average cost per offender will rise from approximately $2,600 to $41,000</a> as a consequence of the elimination of conditional sentences. (Alamy)
8. Fewer Conditional Sentences - More Trials And Hearings
- Lead to more trials as those accused of crimes will be less likely to plead guilty if they know there is no chance they will get a conditional sentence and will be more likely to take their chances on a trial. Some have predicted this will lead to greater backlogs in an already backlogged court system. - Result in more parole hearings. Page's analysis predicted that with the increase in the number of incarcerations, there will be more offenders coming up for parole, which will increase costs for federal and provincial parole review boards. A single review by the Parole Board of Canada costs an estimated $4,289, Page estimated. (Alamy)
7. Mandatory Minimums
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/22/bill-c-10-drugs-mandatory-minimums-omnibus_n_1292894.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">By far the most criticized aspect of the bill is the introduction of mandatory jail sentences for certain crimes, including drug trafficking, sex crimes, child exploitation and some violent offences</a>. Opponents of the measures have argued that this type of sentencing has been tried in other jurisdictions, most notably in the U.S., and has created more problems than it has solved. Critics say that coupled with other changes in the bill, such as increases in the maximum sentences handed down to some drug offenders and sexual predators and elimination of conditional sentences in some cases, mandatory minimums will burden Canada's prison and court systems in ways that are unfeasible, untenable and have little benefit. In particular, they argue that mandatory minimum sentences will: (Jupiter Images)
6. Mandatory Minimums - Higher Costs
Increase the costs of prosecuting and incarcerating offenders and leave fewer funds for rehabilitation programs. (Alamy)
5. Mandatory Minimums - Overcrowding
Lead to overcrowding in prisons. (Alamy)
4. Mandatory Minimums - Make Judges Less Powerful
- Remove judges' discretion to tailor sentences to the specifics of a particular case and offender and force them to apply blanket, one-size-fits-all sentences regardless of circumstances - Limit the use of alternate sentencing measures of the type currently applied to aboriginal offenders. (Alamy)
3. Mandatory Minimums - Over-Punish Drug Offenders
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/03/02/omnibus-crime-bill-pierre-claude-nolin_n_1316481.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">Disproportionately punish small-time drug offenders and have limited effect on the drug producers, organized crime bosses and serious drug traffickers</a> the government says it wants to target. (Alamy)
2. Mandatory Minimums - What's The Point?
Have little rehabilitative effect on offenders and rather leave them more, not less, likely to re-offend. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/11/27/tough-on-crime-conservatives-doubt-tough-sentences_n_1115012.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill">Critics point to numerous studies showing harsher incarceration laws do not have a deterrent effect on criminals or lower crime rates</a>. (Alamy)
1. Mandatory Minimums - What Charter?
Violate provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and open up the government to legal challenges on grounds that the sentencing rules violate certain rights that offenders have under the Charter, such as the right to liberty, the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment and the right to equal protection and benefit of the law. (Alamy)