Crime, public attitudes to crime and political responses to crime.

Author:Hough, Mike
Position:Crime and punishment

This article summarises what can be said about trends in crime and disorder over the last twenty-five years and discusses how these trends map onto public attitudes about crime. It then traces the implications for government policy on the control of crime and disorder. In essence, the argument is that under pressure to respond decisively to public concern about crime and justice, politicians have created a rod for their own back by fuelling this concern--at a time when crime and anxiety about crime is actually falling. The article has its origins in two shorter papers commissioned by the Prime Minister's Office in June 2006.

Crime trends

In simple terms, crime trends rose throughout the post-war period, peaked in the mid-1990s and fell back over the next decade to the levels seen in the early 1980s. This statement masks some important complexities, to which I shall return. But the soundest index of crime, the British Crime Survey (BCS), establishes this 'big picture' pretty clearly (Nicholas et al., 2005).

The BCS provides estimates both of crimes reported to the police and of crimes that go unreported. It asks a very large sample of the general population what crimes they have experienced in the previous twelve months and, if they did, whether they reported them (Nicholas et al., 2005; for a fuller discussion of crime recording, see Hough, Mirrlees-Black and Dale, 2005). The 'all BCS crime' trend includes crimes reported to, and recorded by, the police, as well as unreported crime. It shows a steady rise until 1995, followed by an equal steady fall. Most types of crime have fallen since the mid-1990s, and falls in burglary and vehicle crime have been marked. Victims became increasing more likely to report crimes to the police in the 1980s and early 1990s, with the spread of household insurance and the growth in phone use. Thereafter, the reporting rate has been broadly static, with the exception of violence, for which reporting rates have continued to rise. This is marked in domestic violence-suggesting a cultural shift towards intolerance of this offence.

The police started to record proportionately fewer crimes in the early 1990s--probably responding to Michael Howard's performance management regime, with a heavy emphasis on meeting quantitative targets. This trend was reversed in the late 1990s, when a greater emphasis was placed on fuller recording; and in 2002 the National Crime Recording Standard introduced an explicit policy of full recording, in particular taking victims' reports at face value. The upward turn in trends in recorded crime thereafter is illusory--with some exceptions.

Some countervailing trends

Crimes that seem to be rising, bucking the downward trend of the last decade, include:

-- homicide (murder and manslaughter)

-- firearms offences

-- theft or robbery of 'hot products' such as i-pods, plasma TVs, Sat-Nav equipment

-- e-crimes (eg identity theft, downloading pornography)

-- violence and disorder linked to the late-night economy.

Homicide has risen from 499 cases in 1981 to 820 in 2004/05, an increase of almost two-thirds. The sharpest increase has occurred largely since 1995. Although absolute numbers are small, the homicide trend is the clearest indicator that some forms of violent crime are on the rise. The geographical patterning of the increase is important: the growth has been geographically focused on the poorest wards in the country; for the more affluent two-thirds there have been only marginal changes (Dorling, 2005). The cases that attract most media attention are those involving extreme and predatory violence against innocent--and typically middle-class--victims. The modal homicide victim, however, mirrors the profile of offenders: a young man from a social marginalised group living in a deprived area. Firearms offences recorded by the police have also grown risen; it is very likely that these too are also concentrated in the poorest areas of the country. Robbery 'spiked' at the turn of the century, and after some falls shows signs of increasing again. Almost certainly--though the evidence is hard to assemble--e-crimes are rising, simply as a function of opportunity. Finally it seems likely that violence and disorder linked to the late-night economy has increased (Hough, Mirrlees-Black and Dale, 2005).

Explaining the trends

Probable drivers of the upward trend until the mid-1990s were factors such as the:

-- loosening systems of informal social control (the disciplines of the family, the school, employers)

-- loss of legitimacy of police and chief justices in the 1980s

-- erosion of UK manufacturing base and de-industrialisation

-- growing disparities between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'

-- increased opportunities for crime (more things to steal, new things to steal)

-- the rise in dependent drug use among offenders

-- reductions...

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