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The crime rate in Canada has generally been declining since 1991, except for an increase in 2003. Police reported some 2.6 million offences in 2004, a rate 12% lower than 10 years earlier.

The largest decreases over the last 10 years have been in property offences, particularly by young offenders. The property crime rate fell 3% in 2004, resuming its downward movement after a one-year upswing in 2003.

Violent crime-assault, robbery, sexual assault and homicide-was also down. From 2003 to 2004, the violent crime rate dropped 2%, continuing the downward trend that began in 1992. The national homicide rate rose 12% to 2 homicides per 100,000 individuals, but remained 5% lower than it was 10 years earlier.

Not every kind of crime has declined in recent years, however. For example, the rate of cannabis-related offences has been increasing over the last decade. The percentage of counterfeiting cases has also been rising steadily since 2000.

Fewer cases before the courts

Chart: Criminal Code infractionsThe decline in crime rates has coincided with a number of changes affecting society, policies, laws and criminal justice practices. Those changes have forever transformed how we treat both adults and young persons appearing in courts.

The caseloads of Canadian courts have been declining since the early 1990s, a trend that has been observed both in adult criminal courts and youth courts.

After increasing for two consecutive years, the caseload of the adult criminal courts fell in 2003/2004 to 380,978 cases completed, down 13% from the caseload in 1994/1995.

Meanwhile, the number of cases in youth courts has dropped by one-third since 1991/1992. A substantial portion of the decline was in property crimes, for which the conviction rate also decreased each year. In 2003/2004, however, the largest decline was in the number of young people convicted of crimes against other persons.

In 2003/2004, the number of cases disposed of by youth courts dropped by 17% compared with 2002/2003-the largest year-to-year decrease in more than a decade. This decline seems to be associated with the new Youth Criminal Justice Act, passed in 2003. It also goes hand-in-hand with a drop in the number of youths charged by police.

Complex, lengthy court proceedings

Chart: Criminal Code cases in adult criminal court, by type of decision, 2003Though less numerous, the cases handled by adult criminal courts have become more complex. In 2003/2004, for the first time in 10 years, multiple-charge cases made up the majority of the cases handled by adult criminal courts.

Cases are also taking more time and more court appearances to complete. From 1993/1994 to 2003/2004, the average number of appearances in adult criminal court rose from 4.1 to 5.9. In addition, the average length of time between the first and last appearances in adult criminal cases was more than seven months in 2003/2004, up 14% from the previous year.

Similarly, youth court cases are also becoming longer and more complex. This may be because of the use of extrajudicial measures such as warnings and cautions by police or referrals to community programs for less serious cases. Youth cases involving both single and multiple charges took longer to process in 2003/2004-singles averaged 134 days and multiples averaged 146 days. This compares to 105 days for single charge cases and 122 days for multiple charge cases the year before.

There is no simple explanation for the ups and downs in crime rates. While a link has been noted between changes in the proportion of 15- to 24-year-olds in the population and variations in break-and-enter rates, there appear to be no statistically significant correlations with other types of offences. Other factors such as education, unemployment and inflation may play a role.

Fluctuations in inflation are probably associated with changes in the rates of money-related offences such as robbery, break and enter, and motor vehicle theft. Changes in drinking habits and unemployment rates are likely related to changes in homicide rates.

An evolving correctional system

Chart: Convicted cases with conditional sentenceFrom 1993/1994 to 2002/2003, on an average day, the number of adult offenders in sentenced custody after conviction dropped by 25% in the provincial/territorial correctional system and 4% in the federal penitentiary system. On the other hand, the number of adults in custodial remand jumped 70%. The length of custodial remand also increased from 1998/1999 to 2002/2003.

On an average day, some 156,000 adults were under the supervision of correctional service agencies in 2002/2003, an increase of 7% from 1993/1994. Of that number, 79% were under community supervision, while 21% were in federal, provincial or territorial custody. From 1993/1994 to 2002/2003, the number of adult offenders under community supervision rose 9%, whereas the number of adults in custody edged down 1%.

Probation was the most common sentence being served by adult offenders under community supervision in 2002/2003. Even so, conditional sentences have almost doubled since 1997/1998. For the second consecutive year, the number of adults serving conditional sentences at any given time, at 12,900, was greater than the average daily number of adults serving sentences in a provincial or territorial prison, at 10,600.

Probation remained the leading sentence imposed on youths. In 2003/2004, it was the sentence handed down in 63% of youth court cases that ended in a conviction.