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

1. Canadians' Concerns in Relation to Crime

1. Canadians' Concerns in Relation to Crime

1.1 Salience of crime and violence in Canada

Different polls generate different results regarding Canadians' consideration of crime and violence in Canada as a "top-of-mind" concern. A CBC/Maclean's Magazine survey in 1999 indicates that of those polled, only 3% rate crime and violence as the most important problem facing Canada. Crime is third in importance after the economy and unemployment (19%), and government spending and the deficit (10%). Concern for crime has fluctuated little over the years, and the 1998 rate is up from 2% in 1985, and down from 6% in 1994.

A 1997 Angus Reid poll generates slightly different results. Overall, 22% of those polled mention crime as a "top-of-mind" important issue facing the community, second only to unemployment (42%). A majority of Canadians also perceive that local crime rates have increased over the past five years (59%). This is down slightly from 68% in 1994 and is more similar to the 1990 perception of 57%.

1.2 Crime of greatest concern

When Canadians are asked in the 1998 Environics poll to identify the crimes that are most important or troubling to them, offences against children are most frequently mentioned (Table 1). In 1998, 24% of respondents mentioned such crimes as important, a two point increase from 1994. Violent crime in general is down two points to 17% in 1998. Specific violent crimes including murder (14%) and sexual assault (10%) merit mentioning as being most important.

According to the Environics poll (1998), street gangs and youth crimes are mentioned less often (7%) as troubling, as is violence against women (5%). Since 1994, the proportion of respondents that mention property crime as most troubling has decreased five points to 6% in 1998.

Question:

When you see and hear about crime, what specific type of crime personally troubles you the most?

Table 1: Crime of greatest concern
Crime of greatest concern 1994 1998
Crimes against children 22% 24%
Violent crime 19 17
Murder 13 14
Sexual assault 12 10
Street gangs/youth 7 7
Violence against women 4 5
Property crime 11 6

Source: Environics, 1998.

1.3 Neighbourhood and community crime

According to the 1998 Environics poll, Canadians are less concerned in 1998 than they were in 1994 about crime in their community (see Figure 1). Since 1990, Canadians are increasingly viewing crime as a somewhat or not very important problem in the community at large. In 1998, 38% of respondents on the poll view crime as somewhat important, compared with 33% in 1994 and 30% in 1990. At the same time, the perception of crime as very important has been declining steadily since 1990, when it peaked at 45%. In 1994, 42% of respondents perceived crime as very important and this rate continued to drop to 30% in 1998. In 1998, the proportion of people who view community crime as not very/not at all important reached an all-time high of 31%.

Question:

Would you say that crime is a very important, somewhat important, not very important or not at all important problem in your community?

Figure 1: Concern for community crime: 1990, 1994, 1998

Figure 1: Concern for community crime: 1990, 1994, 1998
[Description of Figure 1]

Source: Environics, 1998.

When asked if respondents considered crime in their neighbourhood to be a serious problem, a strong majority denies that it is a problem. This rate has remained relatively constant, with 79% in 1990, 75% in 1994 and 80% in 1998 holding this view. In 1998, 18% of respondents viewed crime as a serious problem, compared to 23% in 1994. The current rate is similar to what it was in 1990, with 17% viewing it as a serious problem.

1.4 Causes of crime

Overall, Canadians view social problems as being the primary cause of crime (Table 2). The 1998 Environics survey indicates that 64% of respondents attribute crime to poor parenting and broken homes, and 63% attribute it to illegal drug availability. Another 53% cite a soft justice system as being responsible, 52% cite poverty, 51% cite low moral standards, 50% cite unemployment, 49% cite violence on television, and 48% cite lack of discipline in schools. Interestingly, although they identify social problems as a cause of crime, a small percentage of respondents also mention lack of childcare and family services (28%). Twenty-six percent of respondents cite insufficient police as a primary cause of crime.

Question:

Do you think each of the following is a very important, somewhat important, not very important or not at all important cause of crime in Canada today?

Table 2: Canadians perceived causes of crime: 1998
Causes of crime %
Poor parenting and broken homes 64
Illegal drug availability 63
Soft justice system 53
Poverty 52
Low moral standards 51
Unemployment 50
Violence on television 49
Lack of discipline in schools 48
Lack of family and childcare services 28
Insufficient police 26

Source: Environics, 1998.

1.5 Citizen crime prevention

Since 1994, the percentage of Canadians who believe that citizens are responsible for crime prevention and safety within their own communities has declined. The 1998 Environics survey indicates that 46% of respondents, down from 58% in 1994, hold the belief that the average person should be doing more to detect and prevent crime in the neighbourhood (Figure 2).

The proportion of those who believe that law enforcement agencies should do more has increased from 33% in 1994 to 42% in 1998. Eight percent of respondents in 1998, compared to 4% in 1994, feel that both individuals and agencies should be doing more, or offer some other opinion.

Figure 2: Responsibility for crime prevention: 1994, 1998

Question:

Some people say that the average person should be doing more to detect and prevent crime in their neighbourhoods. Others say that people are doing all they can and that it's up to the law enforcement agencies to do more. Which of these two opinions is closest to your own?

Figure 2: Responsibility for crime prevention: 1994, 1998
[Description of Figure 2]

Source: Environics, 1998.

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