Fix social conditions, fix crime

Previously published in the Winnipeg Free Press Sept 15, 2023

Crime in Manitoba is of great concern. Violent crime is at its highest rate since 2009 and is 24 percent higher than a year ago. Although Winnipeg’s crime severity index is lower than it was in 2019, in the past 5 years, it has increased and remains one of the highest across Canadian cities.

The idea that crime is something to be fought is a long standing idea in public policy. But that approach is wrong-headed – at least according to virtually all the experts who research crime and its prevention.

The province’s solution to these pressing issues in Winnipeg and other communities has been to fund more law enforcement and toughen bail conditions. Recently the Manitoba government injected $10 million into policing downtown Winnipeg. This was meant to “make people who visit downtown feel safe.”  

Although people who work and visit downtown Winnipeg might not feel safe,  research actually shows that they aren’t the ones at risk. Visible minorities and the marginalized are more likely to be arrested for crimes and to be the victims of crime.  People at risk of crime are those who are houseless, those who have substance dependency concerns, and those who live the effects of colonial trauma. And those folks are the very people who are more likely to come into contact with the Manitoba Government’s increased number of police – not because they’ve violated the law, but because they occupy spaces where they’re likely to make others feel unsafe. Those folks are also more likely to turn to crime because they live on the margins. This means, they often spend their days in survival mode and deal with daily effects of problematic substance use, mental health concerns, and food insecurity, to name but a few.

Research consistently shows the desired crime-fighting effect of the criminal justice system is limited. This is especially true for policing and incarceration. Research shows that situational crime prevention – that is, surveillance cameras and police boots, wheels and helicopters on the ground and in the sky,  does not reduce crime as effectively as developmental prevention.   Research clearly shows that approaching crime via a community problem-solving, developmental perspective focusing on social and community root causes of crime and changing the social, economic, and physical conditions of inequality produces statistically significant crime reductions. 

Let’s talk about these conditions of inequality. Manitoba is the child poverty capital of Canada. There is consistent evidence of the long-run, co-integration relationship of crime, unemployment, poverty, and inflation. This is particularly relevant for young people involved in child welfare systems. Low wages and unemployment are strongly associated with high crime rates. This connection is borne out over and over again with research and evidence concluding that when we reduce poverty, we have less crime. The wider the poverty gap and the worse the poverty severity index, the higher the deprivation levels among the poor, which lead to more crime. 

Manitoba has an opioid crisis. When people have no hope, they turn to drugs to feel better. Then, they steal or engage in violence to get those drugs. Then we arrest them. Research shows that harm-reduction approaches to drug use, including creating a safe supply of drugs and offering safe places to use drugs, contribute to a decline in criminality. 

Manitoba is experiencing reduced funding to both health care and education. Yet, evidence tells us a better education system, and the more support that system provides children and youth (such as breakfast and lunch programs as well as sports and arts programs), the lower youth crime and  later criminal offending will be. With health care, research tells us people without housing end up arrested more when there is less access to health care beds. So, the more access to healthcare beds, the less crime there is. 

All things taken into account, in Manitoba, we are breeding criminality by allowing wage gaps to continue and by not providing a living wage, by a lack of well-funded education, by not supporting parents and communities, by a lack of mental and physical health supports, by a lack of supports for those with substance dependency … and the list goes on. All these things require investment in social programming and community support, not a reduction in these services. When the social conditions of citizens are attended to, only then will it make downtown – and the whole of our province– feel safe. Safe for everyone. 

Kelly Gorkoff is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Winnipeg. Her research on crime prevention & the social determinants of crime is funded by the Manitoba Research Alliance via a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Partnership grant hosted at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.