Two months ago, only three per cent of Canadians referred to crime and public safety as the most important issue facing the country – a proportion that rose to seven per cent in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and to six per cent in Ontario.
No federal election in this century has been won or lost based on who is “toughest on crime,” but policy proposals can help parties engage with voters.
Earlier this month, Research Co. and Glacier Media studied the views of Canadians on the justice system. The results outline a deep divide on a specific matter: While 45 per cent of Canadians believe the justice system in Canada treats every person fairly, 43 per cent disagree with this notion.
Confidence in the fairness of the justice system is highest among Canadians aged 18 to 34 (51 per cent) and drops among their counterparts aged 35 to 54 (46 per cent) and aged 55 and over (38 per cent).
The opinions of Canadians on the performance of criminal courts are more positive, with 56 per cent saying they do a good job in determining whether or not an accused person is guilty. The lowest rated component is the prison system, with only 37 per cent of Canadians saying it does a good job in helping prisoners become law-abiding.
For the past six months, stories about youth crime in Toronto have made national and international headlines. Since December 2022 in Canada’s most populous municipality, four male teenagers participated in a robbery of precious metals, eight female teenagers were detained after a deadly swarming attack and six minors were charged after a series of pharmacy burglaries.
These events have led to larger discussions about amending the Youth Criminal Justice Act, which governs the application of criminal and correctional law to people who have committed an offence between the ages of 12 and 18.
When we asked Canadians about the act, agreement with three of its key components is particularly high: Allowing non-violent, first-time offenders who are unlikely to re-offend to avoid trial in youth justice court by taking part in programs of extrajudicial sanctions (69 per cent); having the possibility of finding parents in contempt of court if they do not attend hearings or participate in the legal process (also 69 per cent); and disclosing the identity of the youths who have been charged only under special circumstances (67 per cent).
Fewer than half of Canadians (48 per cent) agreed with a separate section: Establishing that no person can be convicted of an offence while he or she is under the age of 12 years. About half of Canadians aged 55 and over (50 per cent) and Conservative Party voters in 2021 (49 per cent) disagree with the current inability to convict a person aged 11 or under.
Another issue that is being entertained as a way to make the justice system work more swiftly is the use of alternative penalties – such as fines, probation or community service – as an option instead of time behind bars.
Canadians do not think every crime should be included on this list. Almost two-thirds (65 per cent) oppose punishing people guilty of arson through alternative penalties, and a majority (56 per cent) feel the same way about convicted drunk drivers.
There is more nuance on two other offences. Just under half of Canadians (49 per cent) oppose alternative penalties for people convicted of online harassment or cyberbullying, while 45 per cent are in favour of this option. On credit card fraud, the public is evenly divided: 46 per cent support fines, probation or community service, while 46 per cent are against it.
Our observations on the justice system are diverse. The main disconnect on the Youth Criminal Act is in the age of offenders. Some Canadians are beginning to wonder if children under 12 are mature enough to be charged with a crime, even if a publication ban is respected. Alternative penalties, long regarded as an opportunity to expedite processes and minimize bureaucracy, are welcome for some offences.
At this point, the appraisal of the justice system issued by Canadians establishes clear differences between some of its components. While most believe the courts get it right when it comes to guilt or innocence, confidence drops when pondering if the system is fair for every person and plummets when we ponder if prisoners can be successfully rehabilitated.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.
Results are based on an online study conducted from April 7-9, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.