Globe and Mail

Demographics cited as crime rate drops again

But drug charges, especially involving pot, prove to be one of big exceptions to overall decline

TIMOTHY APPLEBY
The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, July 19, 2000

Once again, the crime rate across Canada has dropped, falling in 1999 to its lowest level in 20 years.

But there was no such decline in the number of drug charges, notably those involving cannabis. Arrests for growing or possessing pot shot up by 16 per cent last year, even as the use of heroin and cocaine appeared to dip.

Numerous police leaders, including Toronto Chief Julian Fantino, have called for the decriminalization of marijuana and hashish, describing the status quo as a huge waste of police resources.

Released yesterday, Statistics Canada's annual snapshot of crime is for the most part heartening. The 2.36 million criminal incidents reported to police last year -- exclusive of drug or traffic offences -- fell by 5 per cent in 1999, the eighth consecutive annual drop.

Violent crime was down by 2 per cent, while property offences fell still further -- a 6-per-cent drop, continuing a trend that began in 1991, when crime in most categories peaked.

Despite popular perception, youth crime also dropped in 1999, with 7 per cent fewer charges laid against law breakers aged 12 to 17, as compared to 1998. Among boys, the drop was 5 per cent; among girls, 6 per cent.

The number of reported drug offences prosecuted under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, meanwhile, rose sharply across the country in 1999.

Cocaine arrests fell by 3 per cent, and heroin arrests by 1 per cent. But a 16-per-cent increase in charges involving cannabis contributed to a 12-per-cent increase in drug offences, for a total of slightly less than 80,000.

Some of those cannabis charges -- three-quarters of the drug total -- arose from the cultivation of marijuana, which has become a huge export trade, notably in British Columbia and Quebec. Canada-wide, cultivation charges have soared sixfold since 1989.

But two-thirds of the cannabis charges laid last year involved simple possession. And cannabis smoking is clearly more prevalent than the numbers indicate. Police in many jurisdictions routinely seize small amounts of pot and toss it away with a warning.

Saskatchewan had the highest crime rate in Canada last year, Newfoundland the lowest.

Robust economic conditions, community policing, a decline in the use of crack cocaine, and tougher sentencing are all cited as explanations for the shrunken crime tally. The most compelling factor, however, is perhaps demographic: A diminished pool of young people aged 15 to 24, the group likeliest to run afoul of the law.

Long-term trends offer a slightly different picture. Violent crime in Canada is still 5 per cent higher than a decade ago, and 57 per cent greater than 20 years ago.

And last year's decline was not uniform. All four Atlantic provinces, plus Yukon, reported an increased number of reported Criminal Code offences.

Violent crime per capita remained most prevalent in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, despite a small drop in both provinces, indicative of the poverty among natives. Quebec recorded the lowest violent-crime rate.

There were 536 homicides in 1999, coast to coast, 22 fewer than in 1998, signalling the lowest rate per 100,000 Canadians since 1967. British Columbia had the highest homicide rate among the provinces, with 110 killings.

The number of reported sexual assaults fell by 7 per cent last year, another trend visible for several years, while the use of firearms was down as well. Just 4 per cent of violent crimes last year involved a gun.

Statistic Canada's figures are necessarily incomplete since they are based on the number of offences reported to police. Current demographic trends, too, could shift, criminologists warn.

Last year's overall reduction in crime was led by hefty declines in the three biggest provinces -- 7.8 per cent in Quebec, 7.4 per cent in Ontario and 4.9 per cent in British Columbia.

And for the second consecutive year, crime declined in each of the country's nine biggest cities, led by Ottawa (15 per cent) and Quebec City (10 per cent).

The fast-growing Greater Toronto Area saw crime fall by almost 8 per cent, making it one of the safest places to live in Canada.

Among the other Statscan highlights:

The 5-per-cent drop in the number of young people charged with a violent offence in 1999 marks the fourth consecutive decline, the largest year-over-year drop since the Young Offenders Act was introduced in 1984. Young people also committed 11 per cent fewer property offences.

The impaired-driving rate -- 73,148 people charged -- remained stable.

CRIME RATES DOWN IN 1999

              Population      All offences   Violent crimes


City     (more than 500,000)    % change        % change


Vancouver    2,016,643            -4.6             -4.1


Winnipeg       677,625            -1.6             -4.9


Edmonton       929,145            -2.7            -13.1


Calgary        933,748            -3.8             -0.7


Montreal     3,438,532            -7.8              2.5


Hamilton       665,169            -4.8             -4.3


Ottawa         809,034           -15.3            -16.1


Toronto      4,680,250            -7.9             -3.9


Quebec         688,085           -10.4              1.8

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