'The courts are swamped': Calgary judge sees crime rates spike in downturn

Sean Dunnigan, provincial court judge in Calgary, joined CBC's The Homestretch to provide some insight into the increase in Calgary crime from his View From the Bench.​

Provincial court judge Sean Dunnigan explains how cycle of poverty, crime and addiction can be broken

Provincial court judge Sean Dunnigan says the increase in Calgary crime is 'almost expected' given the downturn in the economy. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Calgary police say the number of break-ins are up dramatically in Calgary this year, and so are thefts.

Sean Dunnigan, a provincial court judge in Calgary, joined CBC's The Homestretch to provide some insight into the situation from his View From the Bench.

What do you make of the increase in crime here in Calgary?

With the downturn in the economy, I can say it's probably expected, but the size of the increase is surprising. Calgary's enjoyed 11 straight years of declining crime rates. To have a 30 per cent increase is significant, and it's really concerning. I can tell you myself and my colleagues have been seeing it and feeling it at work. The courts are swamped. 

Which crimes are you seeing the biggest increase in?

The biggest is break and enter at 39 per cent, but robberies, car theft, and theft under $5,000, those are all significantly up. Calgary's not alone in this. We've had a struggling economy nationally, but Calgary, we've got the biggest economic hit, and we've seen the biggest increase in crime. Violent crime such as homicide, sex assault, and other assaults have increased a bit, but not nearly as much as the offences where people are trying to get money.

What's the connection between poverty and crime?

There can be a close connection, but the question is often complicated. What we can say is that poverty, especially when it begins early in life, can lead to a sense of desperation. Kids who grow up in a financially stressed home struggle on a daily basis. Food and clothing are at a premium or often they're just not there. They can have difficulty concentrating in school and low energy, and have far fewer social and sports opportunities. 

If this continues for years, they can fall behind or drop out of school and fall in with the wrong crowd. That wrong crowd often faced similar challenges in their lives. In due course they can find themselves in the youth court system from which they ultimately can graduate into my court: the adult system, which I can tell you is no place for a young person. Once you have an adult criminal record, there can be challenges getting employment. Often they didn't have high school equivalency. So what happens? Poverty continues and the cycle of crime continues.

Is it really that simple? Give people food and shelter and crime stats will go down?

In some cases, it is. There is a statistical connection between homelessness and poverty and involvement in crime. Now, that's not everyone, but for a great, great number, if they had a roof over their head, some food on the table, the opportunity to develop life skills, that cycle of poverty and involvement in the criminal justice system could be broken.

What about drugs? You don't necessarily have to be poor to get into drugs and the crime that's associated with it.

My colleagues and I are fond of saying that 80 to 90 per cent of all the cases we see involve alcohol or drug addiction. Just about every single one of the crimes which are way up — robbery, auto theft, break and enter, theft under $5,000 — all of those involve an individual trying to feed an addiction in almost all cases. We used to think crack was the worst drug ever, but boy, were we wrong. Opioid addiction is the new nightmare. It started with Oxycontin then quickly graduated to fentanyl and the latest king of the killers: carfentanil. 

What would be your Christmas wish this year for the Alberta court system?

My Christmas wish would be an agreement by the provincial government to support and expand the remarkable drug treatment court work they're doing. They're getting people out of the cycle of addiction and poverty. They're making the community safer, and there's just not enough support for it. We need to do more work in that realm.

With files from The Homestretch