Credits: JUSTIN SADLER/QMI AGENCY
Question: What works better to fight violent crime?
Is it the rehabilitative approach Canada emphasized before Stephen Harper came to power, or the law-and-order agenda pursued by the Conservatives?
Fact is, it's hard to tell and crime statistics don't help.
Last week, as our politicians were meeting over the recent outburst of gang shootings in Toronto, Statistics Canada reported Canada's crime rate dropped 6% last year and is at its lowest point since 1972, (although still more than twice as high as 1962).
Every year, when StatsCan produces these numbers, opponents of Harper's anti-crime agenda argue the ongoing drop in crime rates proves there's no need for it. That the numbers show Canada's longstanding "rehabilitative" approach has worked.
But that's not what the numbers show. To claim they do confuses correlation and causation.
In other words, just because two things happen simultaneously, doesn't necessarily mean one caused the other. Here's why.
Crime rates started falling not just in Canada, but all over North America, in the early 1990s.
It happened both in jurisdictions that were "tough" and "soft" on crime.
Obviously, something is impacting crime rates beyond how any particular jurisdiction responds to it.
One theory is that as the giant baby boomer generation ages, society itself is aging, and the number of young males most likely to commit crime is decreasing as a percentage of the population, hence the ongoing drop in the crime rate.
Another, argued by economist Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in their bestseller, Freakonomics, is that liberalized abortion laws in the early 1970s led to today's lower crime rates.
Why? Because they meant that, starting in the early 1990s, there were fewer and fewer unwanted males from poor and broken homes entering into their prime crime-committing years.
While much Canadian commentary insists our softer approach to crime is responsible for the drop in our crime rate post-1990, in the U.S., that approach is widely blamed for the huge spike in crime that started in the 1960s and continued until the early 1990s.
As Levitt and Dubner write: "During the first half of the twentieth century, the incidence of violent crime in the United States was, for the most part, fairly steady. But in the early 1960s, it began to climb. In retrospect, it is clear that one of the major factors pushing this trend (which also occurred in Canada) was a more lenient justice system. Conviction rates declined in the 1960s and criminals who were convicted received shorter sentences ... Because criminals respond to incentives as readily as anyone, the result was a surge in crime."
By contrast, they note, when considering factors that led to lower crime rates in the U.S. post-1990, beyond liberalized abortion laws, "The evidence linking punishment with lower crime rates is very strong. Harsh prison terms have been shown to act as both deterrent (for the would-be criminal on the street) and prophylactic (for the would-be criminal who is already locked up)."
Point is, regardless of what their critics in Canada insist about the Conservatives' anti-crime agenda, there is a huge body of research in the U.S. that has concluded longer prison terms reduce crime.
On the other hand, the Harper government last week absurdly credited its anti-crime initiatives for lowering the 2011 crime rate, before they'd even taken effect.
In either case, you can't just take the crime rate and assume that if it's going down, whatever you did, caused it.
As Thomas Sowell explains in The Vision of the Anointed about this common mistake of confusing causation and correlation when dealing with statistics: "When there is a substantial correlation between A and B, this might mean that: (1) A causes B (2) B causes A (3) Both A and B are the results of C, or ... (4) It is a coincidence.
Words to live by.