Youth crime and flawed statistics

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Last week, there was a story out of Sydney Mines in which a man, Ernie Young, 41, was beaten, stabbed and run over in his own yard (he survived) by four youths who had come to confront his 17-year-old son. By the time it was over, some 20 more youths had shown up, "throwing things, smashing bottles, swinging," according to a neighbour, who added that the "the kids are ... mega mega out of control." The issue is drugs.

One evening a couple of weeks before that, I was going home, heading for the causeway from Ste.-Anne-du-Ruisseau to Belleville, Yarmouth County, on Eel Lake Road, only to find it blocked and police lights flashing along its full length as far as my house on the other side, that was within the blockaded investigation scene.

A man had been found floating under the bridge, his head apparently smashed in. Not long after I made my way some seven kilometres around the end of the lake and got home through the barricade, most of the story was already buzzing, days before the official police statement: who he was, his history of violence and criminality, who allegedly killed him and why, and their stories. It was not just a sloppy crime, with clues left all over, but a too-common story of lives gone wrong amid a druggie spiral downward into moral squalor.

It came within a context: a new wave of drug-related arson, thefts and break-ins in Yarmouth County, including gangs going house-to-house in the middle of the night, breaking into garages and vehicles, with some incidents having a sinister twist. As a few years ago, the place is again on the verge of vigilantism. The father of one crime family has apparently had his truck firebombed, and I've heard two stories of homeowners with miscreants in their gunsights, but who thought better of it at the last minute. Rumours about this stuff, I've learned, tend to be more accurate than I expected.

Meanwhile, Statistics Canada figures came out saying that crime is actually down in Canada, according to a trend of several years. Criminologists and others were quoted, as usual, saying that the public perception is wrong about crime because the media exaggerate it.

Media do sometimes exaggerate, I admit, but I have an accusation of my own.

I accuse the criminology profession and the whole "liberal" side of the argument of stifling a proper debate on youth crime, in particular, by swallowing flawed statistics. The issue of crime is highly ideologized, with the "tough on crime" forces on the other side. As in all ideological standoffs, progress can only be made when both straitjackets are broken. A proper job for the profession would be to study what these statistics actually measure.

The figures accurately describe the murder rate, because bodies are easy to count. They don't count what they don't see -- when crime is a "culture," a 24 / 7 way of life as in the drug trade, where only the most visible specifics get measured. If Mexican police, for instance, measured crime as in Canada, they might well find it decreasing there too, although the very legitimacy of the state is threatened by the drug cartels.

The figures, in a bunch of complex categories, come from the police, but I've yet to talk to a senior officer who believes they're accurate. That includes the head of my local Yarmouth County RCMP detatchment, Sgt. Michel Lacroix, who points out that the figures reflect, among other things, police activity. And, he says, there's less and less of that. His own 20 years as a policeman have been a frustrating process of "diminishing resources and police powers and increasing bureaucracy." The police are mostly in the office doing paperwork and "answering to emergencies." Plus, there's no uniformity in reporting in Canada, he says, and with municipal police forces, "politics often intrude."

Then the public is reporting smaller crimes less and less, on the perception that the police either can't do the job or when they do catch someone, they're usually under 18 and there are no consequences. I'd be surprised if more than a fraction of the Yarmouth County mayhem gets into the statistics. There are five gangs in the county, says Lacroix, and the police do round them up when they eventually catch them with the goods. They don't try hard to hide. For the under-18s, going to court for a slap on the wrist is just part of the game. In one instance frustrating to police, a youth was recently up for his 40th time. The courts usually impose conditions -- no contact with druggie friends, etc. -- "but there's no way we can monitor that," says Lacroix, who is reduced to hoping the crime wave stops on its own before vigilantism starts.

On the other hand, "putting young people in jail is very hard," he says. So what's the answer? I'll get back to this.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was reprinted with permission from The Chronicle Herald.

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