Canadians ‘get tough’ on crime for all the wrong reasons

Misunderstanding the rates and causes of crime leads to wrong solutions

Ryan Janz

A new poll shows that Canadians are favouring harsher punishments for criminals than previously shown. The latest Angus Reid poll found that 62 per cent of respondents in Canada favour capital punishment for murderers and 31 per cent believed that rapists should be put to death.

It appears that Canadians have acquired tougher feelings towards crime, as a poll done in 2004 showed only 48 per cent favouring capital punishment.

Furthermore, the latest poll shows that 65 per cent of Canadians believe mandatory minimum sentences are sending a message to criminals that Canada is getting “tough on crime.” With mandatory minimum sentences, judges are not able to consider all relevant circumstances pertaining to the accused during sentencing, such as background and previous criminal record. Instead, if the accused is found guilty they are sentenced according to a “mandatory minimum” punishment for the crime they have committed.

If a person commits a relatively minor crime, they may be too severely punished because of mandatory minimum sentences. What is worse is that mandatory minimums have been found not to work. As The Globe and Mail recently stated, Canadians are ignoring warnings that mandatory minimums don’t deter crime.

“They are not thinking the way criminals think: most criminal acts are impulsive, not well thought out,” said Sanjeev Anand, a University of Alberta law professor.

Craig Jones, director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said offenders pay little attention to the sentence and more about how best not to get caught, suggesting that deterrence isn’t an effective strategy. Deterrence doesn’t take into consideration the causes of why people commit crimes.

If a person commits a relatively minor crime, they may be too severely punished because of mandatory minimum sentences. What is worse is that mandatory minimums have been found not to work.

Sixty-two per cent of Canadians thought that long prison sentences are the most powerful way to reduce crime. Even though the majority of Canadians support harsher sentences, statistics have shown that incarceration has no significant impact on overall crime rates and is only effective when used for violent and high-risk offenders. Forty-four per cent of Canadians also believed that crime rates have been increasing over the last five years, when crime rates have actually been decreasing for years now. Only a mere 26 per cent believed that crime rates have decreased.

The majority of Canadians are oblivious to the fact that crime is dropping, and therefore still support harsher sentences. It’s clear that Canadians have a distorted perception of crime rates, but how does this happen?

The majority of Canadians get their information about crime and the criminal justice system from television and the newspaper. The problem with this is that the media tends to sensationalize and over-represent violent crimes, which in turn distorts Canadians’ perception about crime, leading them to believe that violent crimes are increasing.

What they don’t realize is that media reporting does not reflect the actual crime patterns. Violent crimes only account for 11 per cent of all reported crimes. Property crime, on the other hand, accounts for 45 per cent of all reported crime, yet you rarely hear about property crime in the news. Also, the media rarely explores the causes of crime pertaining to the individual, such as poverty, family life and abuse, which is a significant factor in why they commit the crime.

We need to focus our efforts on the causes of crime and judges need to start considering alternatives to prison when possible, because prison doesn’t reduce crime and is grossly expensive. Canadians need to realize that harsher prison sentences will not translate into less crime. We need to understand why people commit crimes and to focus our efforts on the prevention of crime before it happens.

Brittany Thiessen is a criminal justice and sociology student at the University of Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 64, Number 20 of The Uniter (February 25, 2010)

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