Canadians are finally getting the message that crime rates are falling.
New poll results show the public is abandoning a stubborn belief that crime is on the rise, bringing public opinion into alignment with a 20-year trend of declining crime rates.
The long-standing disconnect between public fears and reality has confounded criminologists and fuelled federal get-tough policies.
However, the Environics Focus Canada poll – obtained by The Globe and Mail and scheduled for release Thursday – shakes conventional wisdom even more by finding growing support for the use of crime prevention rather than punishment.
"This doesn't mean that people want to lay off criminals," said Keith Neuman, executive director of the Environics Institute. "But what people would like to see is more crime prevention. They feel that this is the right thing to do."
The results shed important light on a raging debate over Ottawa's get-tough-on-crime policies, which include the use of mandatory minimum prison sentences and a massive prison expansion program.
The Environics poll found that residents of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario feel increasingly safe. Manitobans, however, are becoming more concerned about crime.
Russell Patterson, manager of a surveillance-camera supply outlet in Winnipeg, said Tuesday that he sold 900 security cameras to citizens and commercial establishments last year. "There seems to be an awful lot of gang activity and they don't seem to discriminate about who they are shooting at," he said. "People are afraid."
Mr. Patterson said disaffected youths seem to join gangs in search of a feeling of community.
"One of my pet peeves is that community clubs are used for bingo and seniors and stuff like that, but there are not enough things going on for young people," he said. "When I was young, we spent all our days and nights in the community centre. Today, they are rented out for weddings or programs for seniors."
Anthony Doob, a professor at the University of Toronto's Centre for Criminology, said public fear of rising crime has persisted over the past two decades despite consistent evidence that crime rates were falling.
"The fact that more people don't know this is not terribly surprising, especially now since government spokespeople seem to want to convince Canada that it is increasing," he said. Prof. Doob said the new poll may help propel governments toward crime-prevention strategies.
"It may be that people now are beginning to understand that approaches to crime prevention in these days of few government resources are a zero sum," Prof. Doob said. "Money spent on one approach means that that money is not being spent on something else."
The poll found that 46 per cent of respondents believe crime rates are declining; up 9 per cent from a poll last year that asked the same question. The same number – 46 per cent – feel that crime rates are on the rise, down 6 per cent from last year's poll.
Sixty-three per cent of respondents preferred crime prevention over law enforcement, the highest level recorded since Environics began to ask the question in 1994.
The poll, however, found that six out of 10 Canadians support a proposed federal omnibus crime bill increasing the length of jail time for some offences and reducing judicial discretion on sentencing. Mr. Neuman of Environics said the finding is consistent with the increasingly nuanced public perspective.
Julie Di Mambro, a spokesman for the federal Department of Justice, said the government has responded to both the need for stronger sentences and preventative measures.
She said that federal crime-prevention measures include doubling the budget of the National Crime Prevention Centre; enhancing programs to help youth at risk; creating the Youth Gang Prevention Fund and the National Anti-Drug Strategy; and funding transitional housing for clients of the Drug Treatment Court in Toronto.
The federal Aboriginal Justice Strategy has also put $85-million toward diverting young or first-time offenders into local restorative programs in aboriginal communities, Ms. Di Mambro said.