Crime down again…and still we’re unclear why

Crime was down again in the year to September 2010.

Recorded crime shows falls across the board, with the exception of sexual offences which are up slightly.   As ever, changes in recorded crime can be affected by changes in definitions, by the way the police do the recording or by the willingness of victims to come forward, but there are no major shift in any of those which would lead us to think it isn’t a real change.  (In some previous years there have been quite significant changes, some of which have made crime look higher than it really was).

The British Crime Survey [pdf] – which asks a large sample of people the same questions every year about their own personal experiences of crime – can  be a better guide to the trends, and that too shows a small but significant drop in crime from 2009 to 2010.  The BCS found household crime to be up 16%, but otherwise crime is down.

So good news all round.

But we still don’t really know why.

Clearly good policing makes a difference.  A lot of crime is committed by a small number of prolific criminals, and stopping them has a big effect on the figures.  Local authorities also work closely with the police and, when it’s done well, help the police focus on the issues local people really care about.

Our prison population in the UK is higher than ever, so some argue that crime is down because more criminals are behind bars.

But the challenge – to explain why levels of crime right across the western world rose through the 1980s, peaked in the early to mid 1990s and have been falling since  – has not yet been met.  In the UK crime rose sharply under Thatcher’s government (which didn’t tend towards an overly liberal approach to criminals).  It peaked in 1995, fell sharply from then until the late ’90s and more gently since.

It doesn’t seem to correlate to economic cycles, prison populations, police investment or any other obvious factor.

Steven D Levitt famously argued in Freakonomics that abortion laws should take the credit – that following changes in the law many of the people who would have gone on to be criminals were aborted.  That theory doesn’t seem to stand up to close scrutiny either.

Any fall in crime is good news and, despite what we might think from reading certain newspapers, we’re all much safer today than we were in 1995.  The way the police are more willing to focus on the issues that really matter to people – anti-social behaviour in particular – even if they aren’t quite the “proper crimes” the coppers might prefer to be dealing with – is an excellent development (and, to plug my own neck of the woods, one the police in Stockport have been taking up for some time).

So we should welcome the good news and continue to work to reduce crime and the fear of crime, but perhaps we need a little circumspection when it comes to making grand pronouncements about exactly why we are where we are now, or what will lead to the positive trend continuing in future years.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Ed Maxfield 20th Jan '11 - 3:51pm

    What do the long term trends look like – since 1945, say? That might give a much more meaningful indication of the importance of economic trends.

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