Monday, April 19, 2010

Canadians' attitudes on crime are at odds with their other social values

A recent poll is the latest to suggest that Canadians are more vindictive now than a decade ago:

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, an aging population and a Conservative government have changed the way in which Canadians look at crime and punishment, with a new poll suggesting we are slightly more socially conservative than we were 10 years ago.

The EKOS survey shows that although a modest plurality of Canadians (36 per cent) support prevention as the main goal of the criminal justice system, those who support punishment as priority are on the rise – 30 per cent now, up from 22 per cent a decade ago. (Prevention used to garner 44 per cent support, down 8 percentage points over the past decade.)

“There is a tougher outlook on crime, and punishment takes a more prominent role in views of the underpinnings of the criminal justice system than it did a decade ago,” pollster Frank Graves says.

“This is why it is increasingly perilous for a politician to be caught on the wrong side of the ‘tough on crime’ debate, even if their policy position is more rational.”

So far, this is in line with what's been reported previously. What's interesting, though, is that crime seems to be the only major issue where people are becoming more socially conservative, despite what others have suggested:
Although, Mr. Graves found that Canadians line up with the Manning Centre’s views on crime, they do not in some of the other areas. His polling on abortion rights, for example, found that 52 per cent of Canadians are decidedly pro-choice. And 53 per cent of Canadians support same-sex marriage.

Overall, Mr. Graves says, Canadians are becoming increasingly progressive with the exception of crime. Indeed, the emphasis on punishment is much stronger among older, more poorly educated Canadians.
Interesting. I think that the main factor here is probably the focus of the news media, especially commercial TV and tabloid newspapers. Almost anyone in the know about these things will tell you that crime has been declining for some time, but if you took the Sun seriously you'd be scared to step outside your door. There's a simple reason for this; crime makes good copy. It's exciting (heck, I'm as guilty as the next person of clicking on lurid crime stories if I come across them in a scan of the news), and it's a way of playing people's emotions without getting them riled up over anything that might affect the bottom line for the media outlets and their advertisers. After all, almost nobody's in favour of crime except for the criminals, and even they have their doubts when it's someone else doing it, so you're not going to rock the boat writing a story about it. The effect of this, though, is that most of the news gets filled up with crime stories, leading the casual viewer/reader to think that it's everywhere. And when people get scared, their attitudes understandably tend to harden.

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