The Root Causes of Crime

Black Lives Matter march in Calgary, June 3, 2020. Photo credit: Jon Yee

Close your eyes and think of what you dreamed of being when you grew up.

Was it a firefighter?

An astronaut?

A teacher? 

Did you ever dream of being a criminal?

Neither did two-year-old Will (name changed to protect his privacy). But when his abusive father shot and killed his mother in front of him, it was the catalyst that started him on an arduous path—one that is extremely difficult to adjust without support.

Human brains are sophisticated, malleable organs. Brain science shows that when children experience trauma, their brain goes into fight-or-flight mode to protect itself. Repeated trauma deprives the brain of any respite, and programs the brain  to stay in a hypervigilant state while inflicting toxic stress on the body. This significantly increases the likelihood that a person, in adulthood, will develop mental and physical health challenges as well as behavioural issues.

Will never got an opportunity to deal with his trauma in a healthy way and turned to drugs to cope. Drugs led to jail.

But that’s not where his story ends. Today, Will is sober. With access to supports based on his specific, individual needs (trauma counselling, employment training and opportunities, and affordable housing), Will is now a contributing, responsible member of our community. He went on to become a youth worker, drawing on his own experiences to support homeless youth in moving off the streets.

Will's exposure to trauma, combined with a lack of supports, led his brain to develop coping mechanisms that helped him survive his negative experiences. Those coping mechanisms and subsequent development of brain neuropathways can hinder an individual's ability to make healthy choices. Once he had support based on his circumstances and needs, he was able to get healthy and make an incredible contribution to his community.

All Calgarians deserve stable lives where their basic needs are met, and they are provided with a chance to do something meaningful. And the proposed Community Safety Investment Framework, if approved by Council, could provide that support.

Impacts of Intergenerational Trauma

Due to the intergenerational trauma caused by colonial practices (residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, slavery in Canada), intertwined with ongoing poverty and racism, racialized communities tend to have disproportionately high interactions with crime and with police, particularly individuals in Indigenous and Black communities. These systemic inequities are exemplified by the fact that: 

  • Indigenous people are 10 times more likely to be shot and killed by a police officer than a white person;
  • Indigenous people are 56% more likely to be victims of crime than other Canadians;
  • the rates of unemployment among Black, Arab and South Asian Canadians are almost double that of the general population; 
  • Twenty-one percent of racialized Canadians live on low income, compared to only 12% of non-racialized Canadians; and

Indigenous people are twice as likely to experience hidden homelessness (e.g. couchsurfing) than non-Indigenous people.

What leads someone to commit a crime in the first place?



While intergenerational trauma often leads to many of the risk factors associated with crime, crime is not the result of one particular thing. However, the more risk factors present in an individual’s life, the more likely they are to resort to criminality for survival. These risk factors include:

  • Societal factors like low income, inadequate housing and lack of educational/employment opportunities (because poverty and crime are inextricably linked)
  • Personal (and social) factors like bullying, racism and discrimination, isolation/exclusion, addiction and disorders that affect impulsivity (e.g. fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)
  • Familial factors like loss of a family member (divorce, abandonment, neglect), parental dysfunction (addiction, mental illness, criminal behaviour), domestic violence, abuse and neglect

Addiction is a major driver of crime. On a recent episode of the Daveberta podcast, Dr. Elaine Hyshka, assistant professor at the University of Alberta School of Public Health, said: “We’re socialized to think that drugs are… illegal because they’re bad and the [solution is] to lock people up. However, the evidence shows that is highly ineffective...Criminalizing people and stigmatizing them is counterproductive and isn’t helping them to connect to services to get better.”

Protective Factors Decrease Impacts of Risk Factors

On the flipside, there are also protective factors that, when present simultaneously with risk factors, can decrease the likelihood of criminal behaviour. This includes things like: positive, supportive and stable relationships with caring adults; adequate housing; access to health care and social services; parental employment and education; and others. For example, one Canadian study showed that 83% of former inmates had not reoffended after one year when they had jobs.

Social inclusion is also critical to reducing crime -- when individuals feel a sense of belonging within their community, they are less likely to do harm to that community. (Ironically, a large police presence in a particular community has the potential to cultivate a feeling of exclusion or being "othered".) If the City increases funding for services that foster inclusion and other protective factors, research shows that crime will go down. And Will is living proof that these supports will work.

Calgary City Council voted to include a 5% reallocation of the Calgary Police Service budget in budget deliberations starting Nov. 23. This would fund the development of a new Community Safety Investment Framework, where City administration would address gaps in:  

  • crisis services for individuals, their families and support networks; 
  • outreach services; and 
  • the emergency response system in Calgary, including a lack of racially and culturally appropriate services.

Calgary City Council needs to hear your support for the Community Safety Investment Framework in order for it to pass. Sign up to speak on Nov. 23 or provide a written submission to City Council to let them know you want a safer, more supportive Calgary for everyone -- including people like Will.

About the Author

Megan Eichhorn is a communicator, graphic designer and anti-racism & transformative justice advocate in Calgary. She is also the volunteer communications manager for the Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation.


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