Friday, October 24, 2008

These Laws Are Driving Me Crazy!

A while ago I wrote about how harsher prison sentences haven't worked in the States, yet Canada (while experiencing an 25 year low in crime) is following the model. There is talk of continuing to follow that model. There is talk of changing the Youth Criminal Justice Act to try youth as adults for serious crimes.

When I first heard that, I thought "It won't noticeably reduce youth crime." I didn't expect to find many people who would agree with me; mostly granola-crunching Birkenstock-wearing hemp-smoking left-leaning hippies. I didn't expect law enforcement personnel to agree with me. I certainly didn't expect Ottawa's Police Chief to agree with me. But, according to today's article, he does.

Lets look at some anecdotal evidence to support my opinion that harsher sentences don't deter crime, shall we?

First: The Safer Roads to a Safer Ontario Act.

One year ago, Ontario passed the Safer Roads to a Safer Ontario Act, A.K.A.: The Anti-Street Racing Act. If caught going more than 50 km/h you can face fines ranging from $2 000 and $10 000, your license being suspended on the spot, your car being impounded on the spot, and even jail time.

I'd call those pretty tough measures. If I was in a hurry, I'd be keeping that speedometer needle at no more than 49 km/h above the posted limit. If you think tougher laws lead to changed behaviour, you might expect to see a marked decrease in the would-be deterrent law. The desired effect of this law was to reduce traffic related deaths. If tougher laws work, we should see less traffic related deaths.

So, how did the law do?

In the year it's been in effect, there have been almost 9000 charges laid under the act. That averages out to one driver every hour being charged under the act. The average age of the drivers was 31. Four people have been busted three times. Forty two people have been charged under the act twice.

According to this article, there have been 233 fatalities so far in 2008. If that trend continues, there should be 310 by the end of the year. There were 354 fatalities in 2007. That's a reduction of 12%.

That reduction could have come from anywhere. According to this article Canadians drove less in the past year than before. All things being equal, less cars on the road logically means less accidents.

Second: The Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Many Canadians would agree Canada is too soft on youth crime. If that's true, and if it's true that harsher sentences would deter youth crime, then we should see a much higher crime rate for kids than adults.

According to Statistics Canada, the youth crime rate in 2006 looks like it was between 6000 and 7000 accusations per 100 000 population. The overall crime rate was 7518 per 100 000 population.

The youth crime rate is lower than the overall crime rate. So much for a soft youth crime act leading to high crime rates.

A few years ago the government passed the Youth Criminal Justice Act. When I was studying law in university, we had a guest speaker come in to explain that new law to our class. I can't remember if she was a judge, a justice of the peace, or a crown attorney. Anyway, she was more of an expert in the law than I'll ever be. She explained how the new law was designed to find alternate justice for convicted youths. Try to keep the kids out of prison. Our class was in shock. "The kids will be running amok in the streets knowing they have a free pass!" was the general sentiment in the class.

According to Statistics Canada, the youth crime rate dropped after that law was passed.

Note about statistics: In an uncontrolled environment, like the real world, it's really hard to determine cause-and-effect relationships. Laws are passed to change people's behaviour. To see if a law is effective, after the law is passed, watch people's behaviour. The best way to do that is with statistics. But statistics don't show causation. They only show correlation. The best you can hope for is a strong correlation.

For example, the 12% drop in traffic-related deaths looks pretty low to me. I'm not a statistician. It might actually be really good. I don't know. People might be slowing down because driving fast uses more gas. Gas has been expensive this year. Maybe there has been less deaths because cars are being built to be more safe. Perhaps, with more people buying smaller cars (due to high fuel prices) people are being hit with compact cars instead of big, heavy trucks. Maybe that has something to do with it? I don't know. Nobody does.

Frankly, I'd like to see at least a 50% reduction in traffic-related deaths following the enacting of such a law. Something significant. Even that would be a win/lose situation. On the one hand, less people would be dying in traffic accidents. On the other hand, I would be denied the pleasure I derive from being right.

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