Public Perception of Crime and Justice in Canada: A Review of Opinion Polls

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Introduction

This report summarizes research relating to public attitudes in Canada towards a number of criminal justice issues. The focus in the summary is on the public's perceptions of rates of criminal activity, compared with the actual rates. Wherever possible, information pertaining to the knowledge base that underlies these assumptions is included.

Findings

Canadians' Concerns in Relation to Crime

Salience of crime

Overall, Canadians do not consider crime to be a "top-of-mind" concern. Public concern has fluctuated little over the years, and has been decreasing as of late.

Most important crime

Canadians identify crimes of violence against children as the most important or troubling crime, followed by violent crime in general, street gangs, youth crime and violence against women.

Crime and the community

The community and problems associated with it are of great concern to Canadians. The majority of Canadians perceive social factors, such as poor parenting and broken homes, as the primary causes of crime. At the same time, they feel that the average citizen is responsible for crime prevention and safety within the community. Although fear of walking in the neighborhood alone at night has decreased in recent years, one third of respondents still indicate some fear.

The media

Canadians reject the notion that the media play an influential role in determining their attitudes towards crime. The public is of the opinion that increases in violent crime, youth crime and crimes in general are real and not simply a result of media coverage.

Perceptions of Crime Rates and Criminal Justice

Levels of violent crime

Despite concerns about walking alone at night in the community, Canadians perceive the level of violent crime in their communities to be decreasing. Conversely, Canadians perceive crime rates in general as increasing, and respect for the law as decreasing. In reality, rates of violent crime in Canada reported to the police, including homicide, sexual assault and assault have been decreasing now seven consecutive years.

Confidence in the system

Canadians have varying degrees of confidence in particular aspects of the Criminal Justice System. The public perceives law enforcement as a whole as being insufficiently rigorous in Canada, and is particularly dissatisfied with certain features such as the courts and corrections.

Credibility of spokespersons

Police chiefs and victim's rights groups receive the highest ratings from the Canadian public. Researchers and government statistics are seen to be less credible, and the media even less so. Both federal and provincial government officials generate the least credibility of all groups.

Laws and law enforcement

Sentences imposed are perceived by the majority of Canadians to be too lenient. The same holds true for the laws that are in place to deal with lawbreakers.

Crimes of Domestic Violence

Child abuse

Canadians indicate a particular concern for crimes of violence against children, but few had personal experiences with any such victimization. Of those who were aware, the reaction by the majority of respondents was to do nothing about it. However, the level of inactivity in response to such incidences has decreased significantly from 1997.

The Criminal Justice System

Courts

Canadians are supportive of alternatives to incarceration for non-violent crimes. How people feel about this issue is tied to perceptions of the system as a whole as too lax, as those who felt that the system is too lax were not supportive of alternative sanctions and community-based corrections such as electronic monitoring, halfway houses and parole. Public safety is an important consideration for most Canadians, as evidenced by their perceived aims of incarceration.

Sentencing and Corrections

Canadians are of the opinion that sentences handed down by the courts are not severe enough. With respect to the newly established conditional sentence, Canadians are supportive of its use depending on the nature of the conditions and the duration of the sentence. However, it is not seen as an acceptable sentence for certain offences, primarily those of a sexual nature.

Parole

The majority of Canadians would like to see the parole system made stricter. However, support for an expansion of the current system is also strong.

Public awareness of law reform initiatives

Legalization of marijuana

A small majority of Canadians are supportive of legalizing marijuana.

Gun control

Support for gun control legislation has fluctuated over the years, but remains high. A small majority of the public strongly favours mandatory firearm registration. Members of the public approve of gun ownership for the purposes of hunting, but they oppose more general ownership. Mandatory safety courses for gun users are strongly supported.

Youth Justice Act

Many Canadians feel that the new Youth Criminal Justice Act is an improvement over the Young Offenders Act, but is not as harsh as it should be, especially with respect to violent and repeat offenders.

Other Criminal Justice Issues

Wrongful convictions

In the wake of recent cases of wrongful conviction in Canada, the majority of Canadians are of the opinion that the justice system needs to increase its efforts to prevent such miscarriages of justice. The majority ofrespondents also believe that the wrongfully convicted should receive some form of financial compensation.

Death penalty

A slim majority of Canadians, if given the opportunity, would vote to reinstate capital punishment for murder. Notwithstanding this finding, a substantial majority of Canadians do not believe that capital punishment serves as a deterrent to murder.

Native justice system

A bare majority of Canadians are in favour of a Native justice system. Support for this separate system has been increasing over the past eight years.

Private security firms

Canadians are open to the use of private security firms to reduce costs within the criminal justice system. Support for the use of private security firms to patrol areas such as airports and ports is relatively high. However, opinions are mixed as to whether such firms are appropriate for running correctional institutions. Public objections to the use of private security firms is related to the increased risk to the community.

Conclusions

Canadians are concerned about crime in the country as a whole, and more specifically in their own neighbourhoods. Despite a decreasing concern for crime, the public's fears remain unrelated to actual crime rates and potential for victimization, as perceptions of criminal activity and violence are not in tune with reality. This is particularly true with respect to youth crime, which continues to be perceived as a growing problem. At the same time, Canadians do not have a lot of confidence in the criminal justice system, in particular the courts and corrections.

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