Friday, February 11, 2011

Criminal justice information free-for-all

There may be an effort going on in the lead-up to a possible spring election to bolster the Conservative thesis that the crime rate in Canada is going up. That thesis underpins their very expensive law and order agenda and it is wrong. It has been challenged by the opposition parties and represents an electoral issue that will potentially be a very difficult one for Conservatives in a campaign. When people listen, they will hear all about the billions Conservatives want to spend on jails in an era of declining crime. Not good. So consider two events from the past few weeks that may have been part of an effort to provide red meat for the Conservative hordes to cling to and wield during a coming election campaign.

First, there was a poll offered up in late January on the death penalty that warrants a look.

On January 18th, the Harper CBC interview was broadcast that included his remarks on the death penalty: "I personally think there are times where capital punishment is appropriate," Harper said, but added that he has "no plans to bring that issue forward." Those remarks attracted some blowback and speculation the Conservatives might bring the death penalty back, which would be quite controversial and would perhaps open the door to questions about Harper's social policy agenda in the event he were to obtain a majority.

All of that controversy seemed to quickly evaporate though. That may be partly due to short attention spans in Canadian politics. It may also be due to a poll that came out on January 25th, exactly one week after the Harper remarks, with the splashy headline: "Most Canadians say death penalty OK." The poll found that: "Over six in ten Canadians (66%) said they support the death penalty in certain circumstances, and over 40% want the federal government to reinstate it." It was conducted by Abacus Data from January 21st through the 24th, immediately following the Harper interview. The poll was taken as vindication for Harper's remarks by some right wing commentators, who told us "Don’t listen to the chattering classes" and it was used by some media to put opposition parties back on their heels on the issue.

As explained by this Amnesty International analysis of the poll, however, the Abacus result was out of step with the long term trend in Canada in terms of Canadians' attitude toward the death penalty.
The poll results contradict long term trends in Canadian opinion on the death penalty (see my previous blog and DPIC's collection of international polls). In recent years Canadian polls have shown a steady drop in support for the death penalty - in fact the latest Environics polls have shown the trend against the death penalty (steady at just 52% support for the death penalty since 2005).
Environics put it this way, in the executive summary of their Focus Canada 2010 survey report: "Public support for the death penalty remains at an all-time low." Indeed, if you look at the death penalty support trend line in the graph they supply (p. 37), it is a steady downward line from 1979's high of 77% support to today's figure in the low 50s. It helps to see that historical context.

Also from the Amnesty blog, this further context on the timing of the Abacus poll:
The timing of the poll also makes the value of this poll controversial. While the CEO of Abacus has claimed their poll shows overwhelming support for the death penalty among Canadians, the poll was taken at an unusual time; News items in the past few weeks have included the killing of an on-duty Toronto police officer (killed when a mentally ill man ran him down with a snowplough), mass shootings in Arizona USA (a death penalty state) and of course the Prime Minister's interview. News of violent crime often spurs public sentiment towards a violent response (i.e., supporting capital punishment) and while simply given the Prime Minister's remarks it would be sensible to poll public sentiment, in the context of recent news these results cannot be taken to reflect a normal public attitude - just like a doctor wouldn't take your pulse after a 400m dash and call it your resting heart rate.
So there are some legitimate questions about the poll. It also seemed to serve partisan interests in helping to dig the PM out of the controversy over his remarks that was developing and it was all neatly done within a week. And no doubt the poll will be cited by partisans as evidence of a rightward turning Canadian electorate on a high profile criminal justice issue.

Second, this week saw the release of a study published by the Macdonald-Laurier public policy institute in Ottawa under the name of a Scott Newark that sought to challenge the soundness of Statistics Canada's crime data. That data showing, of course, a declining crime rate in Canada for many years now. Newark's study, "Why Canadian Crime Statistics Don't Add Up," saw publicity in the national media via John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail (and here, here). It was rebuffed by Statistics Canada, however, along with various criminology experts (Doob)/(Melchers) who criticized Newark's methods and grasp of the statistics. Additionally, bloggers have been on the case this week, poking holes in the credibility of the Newark exercise.

Muddying the data on crime plays into Conservative hands. They can't justify mega-prisons if they don't have the numbers to back up their cockamamie plans. These creeping efforts here and there try to rejig the landscape. Clearly, they should all be assessed very carefully. With the Macdonald-Laurier study, it was heartening to see that happening.