New stats deepen mystery of UK’s vanishing crime

Crime in England and Wales is down nine per cent, new figures show, and has reached its lowest level since records began three decades ago. But who deserves the credit for this good news?

Britain’s politicians are celebrating a rare piece of good news. Despite the continuing financial slump and a shrinking police force, the crime rate reported by households in England and Wales has fallen by an extraordinary nine per cent. At the same time, the number of crimes reported to police has dropped seven per cent. By any measure, the total number of crimes is lower than it has been in more than thirty years.

Compared to the previous two years, this nine per cent decrease is a significant drop. In the longer term, however, it is just the continuation of a two decade trend. Crime reached a peak in the mid-Nineties. Since then, it has been in rapid decline, not just in England and Wales but across the UK, the US and much of Western Europe.

This is an encouraging trend – but also a mysterious one. There is a mountain of data that shows crime dropping, but no one can quite agree on the reason. Why has crime been steadily falling for so long in different countries with different governments?

There are several competing theories. Some point to the success of ‘zero-tolerance’ police tactics or claim that imprisoning more criminals is responsible for the shift. Others think it is all about drugs: abuse of the most socially destructive drugs like crack cocaine and heroin has dropped. Meanwhile, drug users are experimenting with ‘legal highs’ that are harder for police to track.

Cyber-criminologists say much crime has shifted online: criminals who used to rob houses now clone credit cards or hack emails. This crime is more profitable and less visible to its victims.

Then there are the more outlandish explanations. One theory suggests that crime surged due to pollution from poisonous leaded petrol, now banned. A professor in Texas claimed that playing violent video games has reduced young people’s desire to commit violent crime. Economist Steven Levitt controversially linked the fall in crime to the legalisation of abortion in the UK and US. Fewer children born in difficult circumstances in the 70s and 80s meant fewer criminals twenty years later.

Whodunit?

Who or what is killing crime? It is a politically sensitive question. Ministers and police chiefs, in the UK and elsewhere, are understandably keen to claim some of the credit. They say better policy-making has helped solve the problem of crime.

But not everyone agrees. What the crime figures really show, sociologists might argue, is that the toughest social problems are caused by a huge range of complicated and mysterious factors. As hard as policy workers try to make society safe, real change might come from patterns which lie beyond their control.

You Decide

  1. Do you think locking up more criminals reduces the amount of crime?
  2. Are criminals evil?

Activities

  1. Why do you think criminals do what they do? Write a list of five top reasons and compare notes with the class.
  2. Write a short article about a time you or someone you know was affected by crime. What happened? What were the consequences?

Some People Say...

“Politicians trying to solve crime is like monkeys solving a Rubik’s cube – impossible!”

What do you think?

Q & A

So I can stop worrying about crime now?
Not exactly. Although crime is down overall, it is up significantly in an area teenagers are particularly familiar with: mugging. ‘Theft from person’ went up nine per cent in the last year, with robbers targeting expensive mobile phones. The best advice is to keep your phone hidden in busy areas. Thieves snatch phones while people are distracted by using them.
Any other crimes I should be alert for?
Drugs are obviously a concern. Not all dangerous drugs are necessarily illegal, however. It may not be a crime to buy ‘legal highs’, but it can be very dangerous. These chemicals are not tested or licensed for human consumption, and can be more poisonous than the illegal drugs they replace.

Word Watch

Reported by households
Britain has two main measures of crime. One is the number of crimes recorded by police. But since not all crimes are reported to the police, especially crimes like rape or drug use, this number is an underestimate. The other measure is generated by asking a random sample of households how much crime they have experienced – but this measure is imperfect too: ‘victimless’ crimes and many online crimes are undercounted.
Zero-tolerance
Zero-tolerance policing, developed in New York in the 1990s, worked on the basis that crime thrived in an atmosphere of petty criminality. To prevent murders, the argument went, crack down on people spraying graffiti, littering or breaking windows.
Crack cocaine
This cocaine derivative devastated low income communities in the UK and especially the US during the 1980s and 90s. At the height of the crack epidemic in 1992, New York saw a horrifying 2,262 murders. Last year, there were only 417.
Leaded petrol
Lead was used for years as an additive in petrol and certain kinds of paint. Evidence is growing that lead exposure in childhood leads to reduced IQ and increased violent tendencies. Although lead additives are now banned in the West, they are still manufactured in Britain and exported to a few countries in the developing world.

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