by Richard Nabavi
Crime can easily become a vote-loser for any government, almost irrespective of what they actually do. The reaction by politicians and the media to the recent publication of Crime in England and Wales 2008/09 was typical. The government hailed the figures as showing that crime has fallen substantially; “Oh no it hasn’t”, said many commentators, “you’ve been fiddling the figures, it’s all about reporting rates and definitions”, often adducing anecdotal evidence to make their point. (And of course, there is nothing more irritating than being told how wonderful it is that crime is falling, when you have just had your car torched or your house burgled.) Few seem to have tried to see what lessons can be learned from the data.
This is a pity, because there are some very interesting lessons for policy-making in all those tables and graphs. But first let’s cut through the party-political point scoring, and look at the overall trends. And these are not in doubt. The truth is, both sides are partly right. Crime - certainly most categories of serious and violent crime – is higher than it was in 1997, and much higher than it was if you go back further. But it is substantially lower than it was three or four years ago.
To see this, forget about ‘total recorded offences’; this is a completely meaningless figure, in which the theft of a bicycle is given the same weight as a murder. Since there are more bicycle thefts than murders, a hypothetical fall in this total figure might simply reflect that bicycle thefts were down 10% even if murders had doubled. Would that be a fall in crime? The Home Office should be ashamed of themselves for publicising such a nonsensical figure.
In addition, to get a clear picture, it is important to concentrate on those figures which are most likely to be reliable. The statistics for rape, for example, are notoriously unreliable, so underlying trends are very hard to discern. And changes in recording methods make many other figures hard to interpret.
Instead, let’s concentrate on offences which are both serious and likely to be reliably recorded. In this graph, I have shown the yearly figures for three such categories: homicide and attempted murder, serious wounding, and robbery. In each case, I have taken the figures directly from Crime in England and Wales 2008/09 and re-based them to a starting index of 100 for 1997-8. (To get a clear picture of trends, I have adjusted the homicide/attempted murder figures to exclude the victims of the 7 July London bombings, and the 173 Harold Shipman murders recorded in 2002/3 but which happened many years earlier.)
(Click on chart to see higher resolution version)
As you can see, the figures for these categories – which are hard to fiddle or misrecord - show a substantial rise initially. But then something quite extraordinary happened. Having peaked in around 2002-2004 (depending on the category), these serious crimes have fallen quite dramatically - by 25% or more over four years. This is truly astonishing. If you look at many other serious crimes, in both the BCS survey and the recorded crime statistics, the overall picture is the same. The bottom line is: Crime kept rising until four or five years ago. (This may be why so many people, from their own experience, think that serious crime has risen a lot in recent years – they are right, looking at the longer term.) But then it started falling, surprisingly rapidly.
Understanding why this might be so is key to designing policy. We all know that the underlying long-term trends are heavily influenced by changes in our society: demographic changes, family breakdown, poor education, drug-taking, fractured social structures, and so on – the ‘broken society’. But those factors haven’t changed much in the last three to five years when crime fell. The drugs problems has, if anything, got worse. Family breakdown hasn’t reduced. Economic factors and unemployment were fairly stable over the period under review . Alcohol-related hospital admissions are up (although total consumption is down slightly). The broken society hasn’t been mended since 2003 – certainly not to a degree which might come close to explaining a fall of 25% or more in many serious crimes.
What else could possibly have changed to cause such a big effect?
Could it be that this chart , showing the total England and Wales prison population over the same period might hold some clues?
(Click on chart to see higher resolution version)
Is it a coincidence that the peak in the crime figures occurred just after a dip in the prison population in 2000, and then as the prison population increased the crime figures started falling? And that this is particularly true for ‘professional’ crimes such as robbery, but less so for homicides, which are often domestic?
Back in 1993, Michael Howard, then Home Secretary, was much criticised when he made his famous speech saying ‘Prison works’. Yet, curiously, it has been under a Labour government that we have seen that statement tested in earnest. And it appears he may have been right.
Of course, even if this is true, it doesn’t follow that all of those who are in prison should be there. Most people who are familiar with the justice system think that prison is quite inappropriate in many cases. But since it is believed that a large proportion of serious crime is carried out by a relatively small number of repeat offenders, maybe crime has dropped simply because more of those hardened criminals are in prison now than was the case in 2001.
In political terms, the issue of crime has been relatively subdued in recent years, perhaps because, after a shaky start, Labour has ended up presiding over a justice system which is more draconian than that of Michael Howard’s day. The recent debate has been more about civil liberties, and the failure to supply enough prison places, than about being ‘tough on crime’.
But if the pundits are right, and the economic crisis leads to an increase in crime, that could begin to change. Crime may well become an increasingly important issue for voters over the next few months. There are good electoral reasons why the political parties should consider very carefully both how they will address this issue in policy terms, and how they will present it to the public. The traditional divide of “Labour is soft on criminals, Tories want to lock ‘em up and throw away the key” seems to have broken down. It will be interesting to see whether that changes.