That crime rates are down is not really news. Over the past 20 years crime has gradually halved in England and Wales – dropping, at regular intervals (averaging today’s nine per cent), under the Conservatives, under Labour and now under the Lib Dem/Conservative coalition. Now youth unemployment is soaring, the population (of young men – the demographic most likely to offend) has risen, the govenment has cut welfare, people overall are getting poorer, and the number of police officers has fallen for the fourth consecutive year – by over three per cent.
What’s cutting crime then? Is it, as Cameron claimed today, simply that the remaining policemen “are working better, working smarter” amongst all these newly hungry, savage youths? Is it because “[a]s a Government we have asked them to do more with less resources [and] they have performed… magnificently”? Can it, as Nick Clegg said today, be claimed as “one of the greatest triumphs of recent years”?
There could be another explanation. Here’s one: while we don’t know for sure that in the last two decades policemen have got better (as a consequence of the present government respectfully telling them to), we do know that technology has got better, and we do know that the internet has taken off. Here’s the effect that has on crime:
1) Cars, with central locking and immobilisers, are now pretty hard to get into. Stealing cars was an acknowledged “starter crime”, known to lead to bigger things (drug dealing and the like). Now that this is more difficult, the inept/casual young criminal no longer makes the grade. Like most other careers right now, entry-level crime is only for the properly smart and committed (or the well connected).
2) There is a growth in “high tech” crime – like cloning credit cards – and these don’t show up in crime reports.
3) Neither does online crime – flogging fake designer goods and the rest of it. Criminologists have pointed out that crime began to fall in the mid-1990s, just as the internet was taking off.
4) While house security has got better, home goods like flat screen TVs have got bigger and are more difficult to carry. DVDs and kitchen hardware are now cheaper and not worth stealing, making break-ins hardly worth it. Crime simply doesn’t pay as much as it used to.
And there are other problems with the Tory take on the stats. Today Labour cited the “deeply worrying statistics” underneath the headline crime news: that 30,000 fewer crimes have been solved, and rape is up by two per cent. Now while the second figure could be explained by the “Yewtree” effect – that efforts to increase awareness have lead to more rapes being reported – the first is more damning. Perhaps the police aren’t getting better after all.
There are also the positive effects of a recession on crime. While potential criminals have got poorer, so have their potential victims – there is just less to steal. Terrified at belonging to a jilted generation, the young are also drinking less, taking fewer drugs and applying to university in their thousands.
But if the government really wants to claim responsibility for today’s figures, there is a way to do it. Since 1993, double the number of criminals have been locked up – and incarceration is a measure proven to reduce crime. Along with Labour then, the current government has probably brought down crime. But imprisoning people is also proven to have deep and lasting negative psychological effects on them and their families. With rehabilitation programmes cut, this makes it much harder for re-integration into society afterwards. Increased sentencing for lighter crimes is also a way of dramatically reducing the life chances of the disadvantaged. If this is a triumph, it’s not much of one.