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What’s the cost of a life of crime?

|Written By Elizabeth Thompson

OTTAWA — How much do criminals actually cost society? The federal government is looking to answer that question through a new effort to study the cost of a life of crime in Canada in a bid to bolster the case for youth crime prevention.

A serious study on the cost of crime would require a bigger effort than is possible under the government’s call for proposals, says Margaret Beare.

In a call for proposals for a research report, the Department of Public Safety says Canada lags behind other countries when it comes to putting a number on just how much society can save by diverting young offenders from crime.

“Studies that have looked at the cost of offending throughout the life course have estimated that diverting a 14-year-old high-risk juvenile from a life of crime could potentially save society $2.6 to $5.3 million USD. In the U.K., a high-rate chronic offender costs society about 59,760 pounds ($95,241 USD) from childhood to middle adulthood,” the department noted in its call for proposals.

“However, with one or two exceptions, scarce research has examined the cost of delinquency/offending in the Canadian context, especially with regard to serious, chronic offenders.”

The length of time someone is involved in crime and the seriousness of the offence can have a significant impact on the cost, the department noted.

“Research has shown that offenders exert differential financial pressures on the criminal justice system; a low-risk youth whose offending is limited to the adolescent years may only cost society $10,210 USD from age 10 to 50. On the other hand, a high-risk chronic offender may cost nine times that amount, estimated at $95,241 USD.”

While crime in general puts a burden on society, a small percentage of people commit a large part of the offences, the department said.

“A substantial body of research has shown that a minority of youth (3-15%) are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime and the majority of violent crime and therefore generate a large proportion of the overall costs of crime to society.”

Margaret Beare, professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, says the idea of assessing the cost of a criminal sounds good but suggests a serious study of the question would require a bigger effort than is possible under the government’s call for proposals. According to Beare, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government might be wiser to spend the money funding the recommendations in the roots of youth violence study by former Ontario chief justice Roy McMurtry and former Ontario cabinet minister Alvin Curling. “But maybe prevention-type numbers with dollars attached to them is the only thing that might encourage Harper to turn away from the totally dangerous and crime-producing get-tough tactics that he is currently pushing.”

The federal government’s national crime prevention strategy has made early risk factors among children, youth, and young adults one of its priorities. It hopes that putting a price tag on the “cost of criminal trajectories in Canada” will help it make the cost-benefit case for crime prevention programs at a time when the federal government is tightening its belt.

“Armed with this information on the cost of criminal trajectories, if crime prevention programs can avert or reduce criminal offending, a principal economic benefit is future savings in terms of all the crime-related costs that would have otherwise accrued in the absence of such programs. . . . Being able to approximate the cost of an offending trajectory will allow program funders to estimate the societal return on the initial crime prevention investment.”

For example, with the Better Beginnings, Better Futures program in Ontario, researchers found there was a return of $1.31 for every dollar invested in it in Grade 9. By Grade 12, the return had jumped to $2.50 per dollar of investment.

The research report commissioned by the department will look at existing literature on the costs of crime and the criminal justice system and couple that with longitudinal data on Canadian youth. The report, which the department estimates will cost less than $100,000, will be due by March 31, 2014.

Prospective researchers have until May 27 to present their proposals. The department will choose the winning proposal based on a combination of the experience of the research team, its proposal, and the price it quotes.

The move to analyze the cost of a life of crime comes only a few months after Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told a policing conference in Ottawa that rising police costs had to be justified.

“There are increasing calls to demonstrate the value of the investments that all governments make in public services, including policing,”

Toews told the audience.

The call for proposals also comes only a few weeks after a study by former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page found that spending on criminal justice had climbed 66 per cent over the past decade — particularly since the Conservative government came to power in 2006 — while the crime rate fell 23 per cent over the same period.

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