June 12, 2013 6:08 pm
Updated: June 12, 2013 6:28 pm

Conservatives, researchers at odds over crime data

Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Rob Nicholson speaks with the media in the foyer of the House of Commons Wednesday May 1, 2013 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

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OTTAWA – A battle is breaking out between the Conservative government and academic researchers over data related to a bill before Parliament that changes the not criminally responsible law.

A spokeswoman for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said researchers who prepared a report for the Department of Justice, and then changed their numbers in a second version after saying they discovered a coding error, have “misinformed the debate.”

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And for that reason, the government no longer believes them – even though some Conservative members have recently been citing the old figures in the House of Commons and the committee studying Bill C-54.

“How do we know (the researchers) aren’t misinforming the debate again?” spokeswoman Julie Di Mambro said in an email.

“The government rejects both studies as unreliable and this underscores the need to collect a broad cross-section of information in drafting legislation; we cannot rely on any one source.”

Di Mambro pointed to a timeline that suggests the researchers revised their numbers only after the legislation was introduced and members of the mental health community came out against the bill which, she says, “will contribute to keeping communities safer.”

But the researchers insist they made an honest mistake and informed the government as soon as they discovered it.

“To say that because one data point contained a significant error, we cannot rely on the entire data set is, simply, nonsense,” Patrick Baillie, a Calgary-based psychologist involved in the research, said in an email.

“To attack the data and the research on the basis that it is unreliable is, frankly, insulting. The government now wishes to say ‘We have no data to support our agenda, but we wish to plow ahead nonetheless.’

“That is what makes no sense.”

At issue are two versions of a report containing statistics about individuals found not criminally responsible who had a previous finding of NCR.

The department commissioned the report last September from four researchers, led by associate psychiatry professor Anne Crocker of McGill University, who had been working on a large study about NCR accused in British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec.

One version of the report, completed in November 2012 and labelled final, was provided to the justice department in December. But in March, the researchers say they discovered a mistake – one that significantly lowered the past findings of NCR.

For example, the original report said 38.1 per cent of sex offenders found not criminally responsible and accused of a sex offence had at least one prior NCR finding; that number was changed in the March report to 9.5 per cent.

It also said 27.7 per cent accused of attempted murder had one NCR finding; that was changed to 4.6 per cent, and 19 per cent accused of murder or homicide with one prior NCR was changed to 5.2 per cent.

While Nicholson’s office informed Parliament of a “significantly amended version” of the report in March, it never tabled the full report.

It appears some MPs didn’t get the message.

As recently as May 27, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver spoke to the bill at second reading and used the old statistics.

And last week in committee, Conservative Scott Armstrong questioned a witness using statistics from the old report.

Following a Global News story, Liberal Ted Hsu raised a question of privilege in the House on Wednesday, alleging data offered by Nicholson and Oliver in support of the bill violate his privileges as an MP.

“As one of the few scientists in the House today, I especially value and need correct numbers to properly do my work as an MP otherwise my work would be impeded,” said Hsu, a former physicist who represents Kingston, Ont.

But Hsu said he would abandon his privilege claim if the government were to table the new report in the House and explain why it did not choose to do so when it was first made aware of the correction.

“All members of this place – regardless of party – benefit from having facts and data before them when legislating, and indeed I would argue we all have a right to know,” he said.

“The government knew but kept members in the dark – and by its own admission made an effort to conceal.”

Conservative House leader Peter Van Loan said his party would respond “at a later point.”

NDP House leader Nathan Cullen said the incident about the reports points to a “troubling trend” about the Conservatives using data that fits an argument rather than let facts stand alone.

“It’s something that concerns us, particularly when it comes to crime and punishment,” he said.

Cullen asked Speaker Andrew Scheer to withhold his judgment until his party could respond in the House.

© 2013 Shaw Media

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