Monday, February 28, 2011

Crime, Part III: underreported crime

Last summer, Stockwell Day made the mistake of seeming to say that the crime rate wasn't really falling it was rising, because so many crimes were going unreported. We all had a good laugh at this -- how could the minister possibly know how many crimes go unreported to the police? -- until it was realized that Statscan does, in fact, take a very accurate count, every five years. Here's the most recent study, "Criminal Victimization in Canada 2009."

Now, I don't want to let Stock off the hook on this one: crime rates in Canada are falling. (Though as my earlier posts point out, they're falling from such high levels that our crime rates are still far, far higher than they were back in the early 1960s.) And it was a bit of cosmic justice to see the government decimating and decimating the census and belittling Statscan one day, and then being forced to lean on it the next.

But if we leave behind the politics and look at policy, the truth is, as Statscan has shown, that a lot of crime goes unreported: according to the Statscan study, in 1999, only 37% of criminal incidents were reported to police. By 2004, that figured had fallen to 34%. And in 2009, it fell to 31%. That's not a Conservative fact or a Liberal fact, just a fact.

The assumption of many critics is that the low reporting rate is due to the crimes in question being so minor. Maybe. But I started thinking about my own experience, and I realized that I've been the victim of a "minor" crime four times in the last decade and a half. And minor is very much relative, and in the mind of the beholder. And in the "broken window" theory, it is minor crimes that are the most important crimes to prevent, because they lead to an unsafe atmosphere that leads to more crime, and more serious crimes.

So, the four times I was the victim of a crime: My car was once broken in to on the street, it was twice broken in to in my building's underground garage in, and once my car was broken in to in broad daylight, while parked in the employee parking lot at the Globe. Each time, the cost to me was around $500, plus time and aggravation. Each time, I had to replace a smashed window, and each time, something in the car was stolen: once it was running shoes and gym clothes; another time, I had left a pair of unassembled Ikea chairs in the car, one of which was taken. And so on.

And I never reported any of those crimes to the police. Why not? Because I assumed that they wouldn't have been able to do anything. And, given the way our car insurance rates work, I feared that I could be doubly punished through higher insurance rates. I might have been robbed twice, once illegally and once legally. And so, like most people who are the victims of "minor" crimes, I shut up and ate the cost.

So how minor were these crimes? Let's say that the cost to me was $500 per theft, times 4 thefts, or $2,000 in total, over approximately 15 years. Total cost: call it $130/year. And on top of that, there was a cost to me in wasted time (several hours per incident) plus a hard to quantify cost in terms of aggravation and inconvenience each time my car was burgled, plus a general feeling of insecurity.

How much would I have been willing to pay to avoid all of the above? Or at least reduce the odds of being robbed? How much would you pay? If there were some insurance or policy or service that you could buy that would eliminate or at least reduce the risk of a "minor" but costly and insecurity-breeding theft, how much would you be willing to pay for that? How about, say, $200? If every Canadian coughed up $200, that would be just shy of $7 billion a year.

Keep those numbers in mind for a second.

If you're going to criticize the Tory more-criminals-in-prison-for-longer proposals, the logical place (as opposed to the politically expedient place) to start is not with the argument that the policy is too expensive, but rather with the argument that it won't reduce crime -- that it will be an expense that delivers little or no returns. Which might well be the case: After all, putting more small time drug offenders and white collars criminals behind bars isn't likely to make your neighbourhood safer. But if -- if -- the Tory strategy could reduce crime, its costs, estimated as running into the high-single digit billions per year by the Parliamentary Budget Officer, vs. a few hundred million by the government, would be counterbalanced by some benefits.

Has the government made the case? No. It doesn't appear to be even trying. But that question -- the question of costs vs. benefits -- is the question it has to answer. And the counter-argument -- that the policy's costs will outweigh its benefits -- is the one the critics should be making.

The more-criminals-behind-bars-for-longer policy will be expensive: that's kind of a given. But if the government can make the case that its an actual crime reduction strategy, that it will deliver returns, then many Canadians will support it.

The interesting thing to note is that Freakonomics professor Steven Levitt's research on all of this, which I referenced in my Globe article, suggests that higher incarceration rates can reduce crime -- or at least that, in the very particular case of the ultra-high crime US in the 1990s, crime levels were brought down in part by high and rising incarceration rates.

So does any of that apply at all to the Canadian context? I don't know. The government might want to think about making its case, and making in on this cost-benefit basis. Before you spend the money, show us the evidence.