By virtually any metric, Canada is one of the safest countries in the world, but it’s hardly perfect—ask the residents of a First Nations reservation in Manitoba if they feel as safe as the residents of affluent Rosedale in Toronto. Police crime reduction initiatives can claim their fair share of credit for our nation’s strong overall performance, but all of us play a role. Wilfrid Laurier University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Criminology and Policing is one of the most respected programs of its kind in the country, and as such, we’re always alert to the latest thinking on crime reduction.
In this post, we look at nine ways Canada can continue to improve in the critical area of crime prevention.
1. Youth Interventions
The rhetoric around gang culture and youth violence tends to obscure the fact that many future career criminals are barely out of childhood when they commit their first offences. Often these youthful offenders have had little access to quality social and emotional support, and turn to gangs for a sense of belonging. Youth crime rates in Canada have been trending downward over the past few decades, but in impoverished neighbourhoods, many young people still end up trapped in a cycle of violence.
Youth programs through schools and community health centres can have a big impact on at-risk communities. Many of these organizations already have the expertise and personnel todo even more—provided they have reliable access to public funding.[i]
2. Decriminalizing Drugs
One of the signature campaign promises of the current Liberal government was to begin regulating Canada’s nearly $6 billion cannabis black market.[ii] While the forthcoming transition is being closely watched by those in business and finance, sociologists hope that it will also cut down on the number of inmates in Canadian prisons by virtue of reducing the size of the market for cannabis products and subsequently, criminal activities.
The nation’s prisons are overcrowded with nonviolent offenders, and controversial mandatory minimum sentences have resulted in lengthy sentences for very minor charges such as possession. These sentences can tear families apart, adding to the cycle of poverty which produces crime. A criminal record can also prevent or inhibit ex-convicts from re-entering the workforce upon release, forcing many back into the underworld.
3. & 4. Situational Crime Prevention & Analytics
We took a deep dive into how these techniques are changing the very nature of policing just a few months ago. It’s now standard practice for departments to gather statistics about where and when crime happens. With analytics, experts use computer software to analyze vast reams of data, seeking out trends that can provide clues about how to improve crime prevention strategies.
With Situational Crime Prevention, the approach may include improving lighting or security features in areas that have been flagged as particularly dangerous; it can also mean planning the physical layout of new communities to make it harder for future criminals to operate.
5. Reconsidering the Goals of Sentencing
Arguably the single most important part of crime prevention is making sure we do the right thing once an offender has been apprehended. The goals of sentencing are generally agreed to be as follows:
Denunciation & Deterrence: A sentence broadcasts society’s disapproval of the criminal act, and serves as retribution on behalf of the victims. It’s also a warning to others contemplating the same offence.
Incapacitation/Separation: To deny an offender who presents a continuing risk to the public the opportunity to re-offend.
Rehabilitation & Reparations: To ensure that a prisoner is no longer a threat upon re-entry into society by helping them to change, and where possible, to make amends.[iii]
6. Community Supervision > Prison Sentences
The Government of Ontario’s own research reveals the limitations of prisons for effective deterrence. In 2013/14, the rate of recidivism among those who spent over six months in prison was 37.4%, versus just 21.4% among those in community supervision (such as probation, parole or a conditional sentence); findings were similar over the preceding ten years.[v]
The Government of Canada has noted that based on the literature available, “Prisons should not be used with the expectation of reducing future criminal activity.”[vi] Additionally, imprisoning someone costs the government millions. By comparison, the “costs to keep a child in school represent a quarter of that required to lock up an offender”—how could that money be used elsewhere?
7. Address Disparities in Indigenous Sentencing
Indigenous Canadians have been at a marked disadvantage since the onset of colonization, and that grim story continues to be written out in today’s crime statistics. Although only 5% of Canadian citizens identify as Indigenous, they represent over 25% of incarcerated males and 36% of incarcerated females.[vii] These rates are increasing, up nearly 40% since 2016.
The numbers reflect not only the poverty and lack of infrastructure in many Native communities, but also systemic issues embedded into how Canada’s laws are enforced. In one telling example cited by the CBC, “while 82.4 per cent of all Indigenous offenders served their complete sentence before being released, just 65.2 per cent of non-Indigenous offenders are held until their statutory release date.”
We must ask why.
8. Bring the Outside, Inside
The Walls to Bridges program was first offered in Canada by Laurier, bringing university students both inside and outside prison together to learn. Prisoners often feel isolated from the rest of society, as though they no longer have anything in common with those outside. This alienation can make reintegration infinitely harder. Programs like Walls to Bridges reinforce their common humanity, while helping them develop skills they can use to get straight work outside. Prisoners benefit immensely from these encounters, as does the society which must one day welcome them back.
9. Officer Education
Officers can continue to educate themselves about strategies which can reduce crime in the communities they serve. Fortunately, more and more police are attending post-secondary programs like Laurier’s online Policing and Criminology BA. These academic lessons augment the experience they accrue in the field, and the combination makes for better police officers on our streets.