Public Perception of Crime and Justice in Canada: A Review of Opinion Polls

4. The Criminal Justice System

4. The Criminal Justice System

4.1 Courts

4.1.1 Alternatives to incarceration

A 1997 Angus Reid poll examined the public's attitudes towards alternatives to incarceration. Eighty-five percent of respondents were supportive of the broad concept of alternative penalties to imprisonment for non-violent crimes, and 14% were against it. Of those opposed to alternatives, 32% claimed it was because the system is too lax and/or not tough enough; 31% felt that offenders deserve prison; 10% thought the offender would re-offend; 6% said it depends on the crime and 5% each cite community safety and fear that alternatives to prison would not work (Table 13).

Table 13: Reasons for opposition to alternatives to incarceration: 1997
Reason for Opposition %
System is too lax 32
Offenders deserve prison 31
Offenders will re-offend 10
Depends on the crime 6
Community safety 5
Alternatives to prison will not work 5

Source: Angus Reid, 1997.

Of those who support alternative penalties to incarceration, support is only strong for selected crimes. Canadians favour alternatives for crimes such as personal marijuana possession (81%) and prostitution (78%). Close to two-thirds (63%) of respondents support alternatives for credit card fraud, and 52% support alternative penalties for car theft. In contrast, 63% oppose alternatives to incarceration for drunk driving, and 68% oppose alternatives in the case of million-dollar embezzlement.

When asked to evaluate specific alternatives to prison (Table 14), respondents demonstrate the most support for alternatives that put more emphasis on having offenders perform community service as the penalty (85%). These results are relevant in this case only for non-violent offenders. An equivalent number (84%) support alternatives which require that offenders compensate their victims. Electronic monitoring also garnered a significant amount of support (69%). Support was also high for having more "halfway houses" in Canadian communities (67%) and for imposing larger fines (67%). The one alternative that did not garner a lot of support was early parole. This alternative was opposed by 52% of respondents, whereas 37% supported it.

Table 14: Public support for specific alternatives to incarceration
Alternative to Incarceration Support
Perform Community Service 85%
Offender compensates victim 84
Electronic monitoring 69
More "halfway houses" 67
Larger fines 67
Parole 37

Source: Angus Reid, 1997.

Canadians were also asked about the aims of incarceration: public safety, rehabilitation, and punishment. Public safety is foremost in importance for Canadians, with 37% of respondents citing it as the primary goal of incarceration. Rehabilitation was viewed as a primary goal by 34%, and 17% cited "punishment of the individual for committing the crime" as a principal concern. Ten percent of those polled volunteered the belief that all three goals are equally important.

Respondents were asked where priorities should be assigned with respect to crime prevention strategies within Canada (Table 15). Canadians tend to favour social development programs over law and order and community crime prevention strategies. Eighty four percent of respondents polled felt social development programs such as drug and alcohol education, community recreation, and support for young parents should be a higher priority than it currently is. Law and order efforts, whereby more police are available at the street level to crack down on criminal behaviour, was favoured by 74% of respondents. The same percentage gave high priority to community crime prevention programs such as Block Parents, and Neighborhood Watch to make it tougher to commit crimes.

Table 15: Priorities in crime prevention strategies

Drug and alcohol education Community recreation Support for young parents
Crime prevention strategy Priority
Social development 84%
More police at street level
Crime prevention strategy Priority
Law and Order efforts 74%
Block Parents Neighborhood watch
Crime prevention strategy Priority
Community crime prevention 74%

Source: Angus Reid, 1997.

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