Poilievre's solution to car thefts ignores reality in favour of easy politics

His tough-on-crime approach is simplistic and ineffective

Poilievre's solution to car thefts ignores reality in favour of easy politics
Michael Spratt

Pierre Poilievre's recent tough-on-crime rhetoric regarding car theft is political eyewash at its worst. He claims that only his Conservatives can rescue us from the Grand Theft Auto nightmare unleashed by the Trudeau government. However, Poilievre's "solutions" are performative at best, akin to a baseball player sprinting down the line on a routine ground out; it may look good, but it’s all for show.

Poilievre loves to paint the Liberals as crime enablers, claiming that auto theft surged 50 percent under their watch after a 34 percent drop during the Harper-Poilievre reign. Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable – and given Poilievre’s knack for twisting facts, we shouldn’t mindlessly buy into his dark narrative.

Car thefts peaked in 1996 after nearly doubling over the preceding decade. By the time Harper assumed power in 2006, auto theft was already declining, dropping by over 18 percent. And sure, thefts saw a downward trend from 2006 to 2015, almost halving, although the last two years of the Harper government saw a slight uptick of about 7 percent. Under Trudeau's leadership, the general downward trend continued, hitting a 30-year low in 2020.

Yes, there was a 24 percent spike in car thefts in 2022, but that's probably about as related to Trudeau as a penguin is to a palm tree.

So, Poilievre's math is off; thefts didn’t really shoot up 34 percent under Trudeau. The peak auto theft rates under Trudeau are still lower than those under Harper's first five years. But let's not get distracted by numbers; it's disingenuous for Poilievre to take credit for the decline in thefts under the Conservative government – those decreases are more likely part of a broader trend of declining crime rates.

Now, onto Poilievre's grand plan. He wants to scrap house arrest for car thieves, increase mandatory minimum sentences, and “restore jail, not bail” for car thieves.

Poilievre blamed Trudeau for the increase in car theft, pointing specifically to amendments to the Criminal Code in 2022 that removed the prohibition on conditional sentences for various offences, including the small number of car thefts prosecuted by indictment.

Poilievre didn’t provide any data to back up his claim, perhaps because the 2022 amendments only came into force in November and couldn’t have impacted that year’s crime rates. In fact, more conditional sentences were handed out for car theft in the last years of the Harper government than under the Trudeau government.

There is simply no evidence to suggest that car thieves are getting more lenient bail or sentence and, most importantly, even if they were, that the leniency is connected to the recent increase in offence rates.

If you want to talk about getting tough on crime, Trudeau raised the maximum sentence for most motor vehicle thefts from 18 months in jail to two years less a day. And despite repealing many minimum sentences, Trudeau left the minimum sentence for auto theft untouched. The reality is that Trudeau has been tougher on car theft than Harper.

Even if the current laws are not, as Poilievre claims, incentivizing people to steal cars, could Poilievre's proposal to increase the minimum sentence be a deterrent?

Short answer: no. The evidence is clear that minimum sentences do not deter crime. But we have known that for decades.

In 1984, the Canadian Sentencing Commission concluded that MMPs create injustice without accomplishing any of the other functions ascribed to them.

In 2005, a Department of Justice report found evidence that “minimum sentences are not an effective sentencing tool [and don’t offer] any increased crime prevention benefits.”

In 2007, the Parliamentary Information and Research Service found that “existing research generally does not support the use of mandatory minimum sentences for the purpose of deterrence.”

In 2017, a Statistics Canada report concluded that research in Canada and the United States has found “no evidence that MMPs have deterred crime; rather, some studies suggest that MMPs can result in overly harsh penalties and disparities [that] actually increase recidivism.”

Poilievre's minimum sentence solution, like his proposal to eliminate conditional sentences, is deceitfully on-brand – a simplistic and ineffective solution built on misleading political slogans.

The reality is that while the recent short-term increase in car theft rates might keep us on edge, the reasons behind the rise are more complex than Poilievre's soundbites suggest. The real reasons for the short-term increases in car theft are complex. They are more likely explained by supply chain issues, obsolete anti-theft devices, and the economic downturn rather than any government’s criminal justice policy.

It's time to stop letting Poilievre drive the conversation on car thefts – he is more interested in scoring cheap political points than proposing solutions. Because at the end of the day, when someone's swiped your wheels, empty rhetoric won’t give you a ride.

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