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

7. Other Criminal Justice Issues

7. Other Criminal Justice Issues

7.1 Legalization of marijuana

When Canadians were asked in a 1999 CBC/Maclean's poll whether marijuana should be legalized, 45% strongly or somewhat agree in legalization. However, only 18% strongly agree. When compared with Americans, 29% are strongly or somewhat in favour of legalization, and 12% strongly agree.

7.2 Private security firms

Canadians are open to the idea of using private security firms as a way of reducing costs within the justice system. According to the 1998 Environics poll, 85% of respondents are supportive of private businesses using private security firms. However, 37% are only somewhat supportive, suggesting a concern for the private sector taking over services traditionally performed by the public sector in the form of local police forces.

Canadians are also supportive of using private security firms for patrolling airports and ports, with 70% being in favour and 23% opposed. Of those in favour, 33% are strongly supportive whereas only 13% are strongly opposed.

There appears to be less support for the use of private security firms for running prisons. Forty eight percent of those polled are supportive, while 43% oppose the use of private security firms for running prisons. A greater percentage of respondents are strongly opposed (25%) than are strongly supportive (18%) of such an initiative.

When probed further as to what specific concerns Canadians have about the use of private security firms in prisons, 26% cited worries that prisons would become less secure and there would be more escapes (Table 18). Fewer were concerned about job losses or wage cuts for prison workers (15%), worse conditions (10%) and poorer programs for inmates (9%), and that guards would be less competent and not properly trained (8%).

There is little concern with regards to corruption and bribery (5%), lower standards (5%), lack of accountability (4%) and that it is not a good idea in general (2%). Interestingly, 21% indicate no concerns about private sector involvement in prisons.

Question:

What concerns, if any, would you have if private security firms became more involved in running more prisons?

Table 18: Concerns if private security firms ran more prisons
Concern %
Less secure/more escapes 26
Job losses/wage cuts for prison workers 15
Profits for private sector 12
Worse conditions for inmates 10
Poorer programs for inmates 9
Guards nor properly trained/incompetent 8
Corruption/bribery 5
Lower standards/not strict enough 5
Lack of accountability/needs regulation 4
Not a good idea/negative responses 2

Source: Environics, 1998.

7.3 Wrongful convictions

An Angus Reid poll from May of 1995 provides some information about how Canadians feel about wrongful convictions. These results were gathered in the wake of two high-profile wrongful conviction cases, that of Guy Paul Morin, acquitted of murder in January of 1995 after serving ten years in prison, and Donald Marshall, whose murder conviction was overturned after spending more than 20 years in prison.

The results of the poll indicate that 65% of Canadians surveyed said they believe that some notable recent examples of wrongful convictions are indicative of a justice system that should increase its efforts to deal with people who claim they have been wrongly convicted. This result is more than double the percentage (30%) of those who feel that wrongful convictions rarely happen and the justice system should carry on the way it always has when people claim they have been wrongly convicted. Additionally, 90% of those surveyed felt that those individuals who are wrongfully convicted should receive financial compensation, believing that a wrongful conviction is the justice system's fault, therefore, these people should receive financial compensation from governments for what happened to them.

7.4 Death penalty

Support for the death penalty has varied over the past 20 years, when Gallup first asked about it in their National Poll. Results of the 1998 poll indicate that if a national referendum were held on the question of executing an offender convicted of murder, 61% of Canadians would vote for reinstatement of the death penalty (Table 19). The current level of support is similar to the rate from the late 1980s and early 1990s when support was in the range of 59% in 1994 to 61% in 1987. This rate has been climbing since 1996, when support reached an all-time low of 55%. The highest levels of support occurred in 1984, when it reached 71%.

Question: If a national referendum were held today on the question of executing a person for murder, would you vote for reinstating the death penalty in Canada or would you vote against reinstating it?

Table 19: Support for reinstatement of the death penalty
Year For Against Undecided
1998 61% 35% 4%
1997 63 30 6
1996 55 36 9
1994 59 32 9
1990 60 33 7
1987 61 28 11
1986 68 20 12
1985 68 22 10
1984 71 21 8
1982 70 19 11
1978 68 20 11

Source: Gallup, 1998.

Gallup asked respondents if their views would change, given hypothetical evidence that capital punishment did not act as a deterrent to murder (Table 20). Of those who currently favour the death penalty, 75% would continue to hold that opinion, suggesting to the authors of the study that those who favour the death penalty hold such beliefs that it is a just punishment for murder. When those who oppose capital punishment were presented with hypothetical information that capital punishment did act as a deterrent for murder, 76% retained their original position. The authors infer from this result that those who hold this view do so because they support a "sanctity of life" line of reasoning.

Question: Suppose new evidence showed that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent to murder, that it does not lower the murder rate. Would you favour or oppose the death penalty?

Table 20: Attitude concerning death penalty even if proven it does not lower murder rate
Year Still favour Now oppose No opinion
1998 75% 22% 3%
1997 73 21 6
1996 70 24 6
1994 75 20 6
1990 77 21 3

Source: Gallup, 1998.

Gallup also asked Canadians whether they believe that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to murder (Table 21). Since this question was first asked in 1987, the percentage of those who believe it to act as a deterrent has remained relatively constant. Support for this statement was highest in 1994 (58%) and the current low of 53% is similar to 1990 (54%) and 1996 (53%). The percentage of those who do not believe the death penalty serves as a deterrent continues an upward trend from 36% in 1987 to 41% in 1998.

Question: Suppose new evidence showed that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder, that it lowers the murder rate. Would you favour or oppose the death penalty?

Table 21: Attitude concerning death penalty if proven it does act as a deterrent to murder
Year Still oppose Now favour No opinion
1998 76% 19% 5%
1997 72 25 3
1996 68 28 4
1994 71 23 6
1990 70 25 5

Source: Gallup, 1998.

7.5 Section summary

Canadians are supportive of efforts to lessen spending within the criminal justice system, but not if such cuts will compromise public safety. While the use of private security firms for running private businesses is acceptable, the same cannot be said for running prisons.

There is also some concern surrounding wrongful convictions. The public would like to see increased efforts to deal with those people who believe they have been wrongly convicted. Conversely, while Canadians are concerned about potential wrongful convictions, support for the reinstatement of the death penalty for those convicted of murder continues to increase.

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