Crime in Canada and in the United States: A Comparative Analysis

By Ouimet, Marc | The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Crime in Canada and in the United States: A Comparative Analysis


Ouimet, Marc, The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology


While crime has been a big political issue in the U.S. in the last thirty years, there is a sense that crime is becoming more important on Canada's political agenda. Public pressure for stricter gun laws, young offender laws and anti-gang laws shows that Canadians are .increasingly preoccupied with personal safety. Canada's crime situation is often assessed in comparison with the U.S. crime problem. However, the interpretation of the difference between the two countries depends heavily on the analytical design that is being used, on the indicators that are selected. This article examines the prevalence of four selected crimes between the two countries and introduces controls for regional variations and city size. Its aim is to provide a detailed interpretation of the difference between the two countries. In essence, no explanation of the difference in crime between Canada and the United Stares can be adequately tested if the problem itself is misspecified.

In the past three decades, a number of studies have compared the prevalence of crime between the United States and Canada. In most cases, it was found that crime was more frequent in the U.S., and non-specific explanations were offered (i.e., culture, laws, national character, among others). However, a review of studies shows that much emphasis has been given to homicide, which represents a very infrequent type of crime, and for which the U.S. situation can be explained by very specific or peculiar factors. Determinants of the homicide rate are quite different from those of burglary, car theft and robbery. In 1997 Zimring and Hawkins, two influential criminologists, published Crime Is Not the Problem, which shows that the major difference between the U. S. and Canada is the level of lethal violence. Using victimization surveys, they argue that the level of crime in the two countries is similar but that there are more homicides in the U.S. because guns are more prevalent.

Numerous international comparisons of crime have been conducted in the fields of criminology and sociology. However, they are confronted with a number of problems, especially as concerns the availability and validity of empirical data. Before undertaking an international comparison of the incidence of crime, we must first make sure that crime indicators are comparable. Homicide, robbery, burglary and car theft are the crimes most commonly used for comparison. These offences are better indicators of criminal activity than others (such as sexual or physical assault) since a large fraction of the crimes committed are known to police (Cusson, 1990) and because the differences in legal definitions across countries are less important than for other forms of crimes (such as fraud or drinking and driving).

The dark figure of crime (i.e., the proportion of crimes that are not reported to authorities) does not represent a major problem for comparison since it might be assumed that the rate of reportability is fairly constant across countries. Even if data on this subject for the U.S. and Canada are only scattered, there are no a priori reasons to think that differences in the two countries' residents in their propensity of reporting their victimization to the police would be a major factor in explaining differences in crime rates. Hindelang (1974) has shown that, in police data and victimization survey results, "the two sources of data lead to rather similar conclusions about areas of the country (Northeast, North Central, South or West) and places (urban, suburban, or rural). . ." (14). In a cross-national victimization survey, van Dijk, Mayhew and Killias (1990) report that there is little difference between Canadians and Americans on the percentage of victims reporting their crime to the police for burglary (respectively 80.6% vs. 78.9%) and robbery (56.5% vs. 59.5%). However, Americans were more likely to report car thefts than Canadians (97.6% vs. 82.4%).

Major Explanations of the Crime Gap between Canada and the U. …

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