Crime prevention for dummies

I closed yesterday’s post on national imprisonment rates by rhetorically asking why the mainstream media hasn’t perceived as newsworthy  the quite marked increase in imprisonment over the last decade and more.

One reason may be that, despite significantly greater resort to imprisonment in Australia over the last decade or so, we are still very moderate/lenient in world comparative terms, as the following graph from a recent Crooked Timber post shows:

 

As you can see, US imprisonment rates are way out in a class all of their own.   But Australia’s imprisonment rate remains somewhat lower than the UK.   And yet, as can be seen from the graph over the fold (taken from an excellent and very comprehensive US Department of Justice comparative study), Australian  home burglary  rates, which most immediately impact general public perceptions of crime risk,  are significantly higher than the UK’s and indeed those of other countries with which we usually compare ourselves (although they have fallen sharply over the last 3 years, which the graph doesn’t show).    The relatively high home burglary rate  may partly account for the hypersensitivity of Australian politicians to crime issues, and the fact that crime stories invariably provoke dramatic reactions whenever radio shock jocks discuss them.

 

 

On the other hand,   Australian robbery rates are rather lower than the international average (and lower than both the US and UK), while car theft rates are around the average.   I haven’t compared other categories of crime, but  interested readers  can look through the US Department of Justice  study .

What does the research tell us about the sorts of policies Australia should be pursuing to reduce crime?   Well, economist Steve Levitt of Freakonomics fame has made some  partly controversial findings about the US situation:

Crime dropped sharply and unexpectedly in the United States in the 1990s. I conclude that four factors collectively explain the entire drop in crime: increases in the number of police, increases in the size of the prison population, the waning of the crack epidemic, and the legalization of abortion in the 1970s. Other common explanations for declining crime appear far less important. The factors identified are much less successful in explaining fluctuations in crime in the preceding two decades. The real puzzle is not why crime fell in the 1990s, but rather, why crime did not begin falling earlier.

Levitt’s claims about the role of legalised abortion in falling crime rates (the theory being that it reduced the number of unwanted children who are more likely to become criminals) has been somewhat discredited, but his remaining causative claims are fairly well supported by other research.   Certainly enhanced, better resourced and more intelllgently deployed policing consistently shows up as an important factor in reducing crime rates.   Key aspects of reducing crime  include increasing the certainty of detection (hence the importance of enhanced policing)  but also  increasing the certainty of punishment.   However, most research (including the US Department of Justice study  mentioned earlier) shows that increasing the length of imprisonment (as opposed to the certainty of its occurrence) does not increase the deterrent effect.

On the other hand, very short terms of imprisonment (less than 1 year) seem actually to be counterproductive, especially for first and second offenders, because any minimal deterrent effect is outweighed by the “prison as school for crime” effect.   That’s probably the main reason why the former NT CLP government’s notorious mandatory sentencing regime was such a complete failure.   It essentially forced courts to sentence first and second offenders for minor property crimes to 14 day-3 month prison terms.   Anyone familiar with criminological research shouldn’t have been surprised that  the CLP’s policy  resulted in crime rates actually increasing, and then falling again as soon as the Martin Labor government abolished this silly law.

By contrast, large increases in the length of imprisonment certainly have some crime reduction effect through incapacitation if not deterrence.    Many US  states implemented draconian  “three strikes and you’re in” mandatory imprisonment laws over the last 15 years or so, with third offenders automatically imprisoned for very long periods (typically 10 years and more).  Criminals don’t commit crimes (except against each other) while they’re in prison, so if you put enough of them behind bars for long enough you’ll achieve  some reduction in crime.   Whether the financial and social costs of such an extreme strategy can be justified on a straight cost/benefit analysis, however, is doubtful to say the least.   Levitt claims that such policies can be shown to provide net benefits, but I’d take a lot of convincing because his claims don’t square with any other research I’ve read.

Finally, someone  raised the issue of crime and ethnicity on the previous thread.   The association between Aboriginality and crime is a very strong one, as mentioned on the previous thread.    Only patient and well co-ordinated policies over a wide range of areas, as discussed in my previous post on this topic, are likely to  have a significant impact, and then only gradually.  As far as  I know, the only Australian research on  ethnicity and crime in a more general sense  is a 1999 Australian Institute of Criminology study by Mukherjee.    Unfortunately it appears that only Victoria collects (or at least publishes) statistics on crime rates and ethnicity, and even those figures in Mukherjee’s study  are now a little dated.   Presumably other states must think it would be unduly inflammatory or politically incorrect to collect such figures.   Mukherjee finds (see chapter 4 page 51)  that, although most ethnic groups have crime rates significantly lower than those of Australian born people, there are a few groups with very much higher crime rates.   Rumanians, Yugoslavians  and Russians head the list, with the former having crime rates some 300% higher than Australian born residents.   Then come Vietnamese, Lebanese, Turks and Fijians.   Kiwis and Cambodians also exhibit  higher crime rates  than Australian born people, but not by much.

I suspect that the figures for Lebanese crime in Sydney would be even higher today than the Victorian ones from 8 years or so ago.   Conversely it may well be that Vietnamese crime rates are somewhat lower now.   Moreover, these high crime ethnic groups are probably an artefact of the 1980s, when lax migration  rules allowed lots of unskilled migrants with poor English language  proficiency to gain entry under the humanitarian or family reunion programs.   They tended to form ethnic ghettoes and to  import and perpetuate significant  patterns of criminality typical of the chaotic (mostly post-Communist) societies from which they had come.   Those lax migration rules were greatly tightened quite a long time ago, even before the Howard government took office.   Indeed some current Howard government practices can reasonably be argued to  amount to  counterproductive surplus repression.   In any event, we can fairly confidently expect that the disproportionate contribution of some ethnic groups to crime rates will wane over time as they gradually  become fully assimilated into the Australian community.

So what policies should we be adopting given all this research?   Here are my suggestions:

  • More and better trained police with better resources.
  • Much greater emphasis on diversionary and restorative justice programs for first and second offenders, so that offenders are never sent to prison for short periods.
  • A “three strikes and you’re in”  law for all property and violence offences, to greatly increase the certainty of punishment for repeat offenders.    Offenders would be required to be sentenced to a minimum of 18 months actual imprisonment, although there would need to be a residual judicial discretion for genuinely exceptional cases.
  • Harm minimisation approach for drug addiction, so that heroin and other opiate drug addicts are prescribed daily maintenance doses under strict medical supervision.   That would hopefully almost eliminate the drug black market and remove any need for addicts to committ property crimes to support their habits.
  • Comprehensive attack on Aboriginal disadvantage as outlined in my previous post.  

Lastly, Australian governments should be co-operating in undertaking much better focused and resourced research into crime and its causes.   As the US Department of Justice study  observes (page 107):

Given the lack of knowledge about variation in outcomes and severity of the criminal justice system, potential criminals might perceive that the risks of offending are low. However, little is known in Australia about offending behavior, decision-making and criminal careers. Enhancing knowledge on these issues is crucial to the conduct of research on the deterrent and incapacitative effects of the criminal justice system.

It doesn’t make sense for Australian governments to conduct a law and order auction every election year, without ever bothering in any systematic way  to find out what is causing crime or how it can best be reduced.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Alan
Alan
15 years ago

You neglect to mention the grave social threat of civil unions in the ACT and their undoubted contribution to increasing crime. Ordinary Australians know that is exactly the sort of self-indulgent fencepost sitting to be expected from a CWDB.

Tony Harris
Tony Harris(@tony-harris)
15 years ago

Good suggestions, especially the idea of less short terms. What about keeping white collar criminals out of gaol, using their skills and paying (literally) for their misdeeds?

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

This is mostly in line with my readings, although I’d suggest the disinterested literature (as distinct from publications by right-wing think tanks) points to lengthy prison terms and (especially) capital punishment as being even less effective in deterring crime than you say (incapacitation is a different thing, though). It seems that it’s the certainty, rather than the quantum, of punishment that works to deter.

On the burglary question there are problems of classification and reporting that make cross-country comparisons for these sorts of crimes really unreliable – I’d take it with a pinch of salt. Still, in general we seem to have a fairly high rate of property crime and a fairly low rate of crimes against the person. I’d rather it in that order than the other way around, as in the US.

Gareth
15 years ago

Could the fact that we have more home burglaries be because we lock fewer people up, or is this too simplistic?

Jonno
Jonno
15 years ago

What about the differences between states? My understanding was that Victoria at least used to have a much lower rate of imprisonment. How do the burglary rates etc compare?

Rafe
15 years ago

Where would the US rank without the War on Drugs?

Link
15 years ago

Geez they’re a well behaved lot in India!

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

Thanks for going to the trouble to find these data Ken. The only part I disagree with is the last clause of your last sentence:

It doesn’t make sense for Australian governments to conduct a law and order auction every election year, without ever bothering in any systematic way to find out what is causing crime or how it can best be reduced.

I think that such research is properly the domain of academics. The main role for the government is to build good data collection into their processes and make it freely available.

Patrick
Patrick
15 years ago

I would add to your recommendations only something I suggested in the previous comment thread, which is developing very hard and very certain non-penal sentences for non-property and non-violent offences.

One real problem with, eg, drink-driving, is that judges, with the appealling (legally speaking!) recidivist actually before them and sincerely acting penitent, find it very hard to sentence them to jail.

And not without reason. But on the other hand, a recidivist drink driver is extraordinarily hard to ‘correct’, and an extraordinary danger. So I think we should use more community service style punishments.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

A final word and then I will go quietly. Atheists have a lower crime rate than believers in the US (which is probably not saying much!). An article by Ilya Somin in the Legal Times April Issue makes this point in addressing the general prejudice and discrimination that ahtheists face over in God’s own. One strong form of discrimination involves denying child custody to non-observant parents, explicitly stated by Judges in their published judicial opinions. So much for the separation of Church and State that the US constitution otherwise requires. The other form is discrimination in election to public office. There is not a single member of the US congress who is openly atheist.
And despite his apparent liberal leanings, the author is happy to equate people with Communists beliefs with Nazi’s, see the bottom of the first page. What a truly scary place the US is.

Yobbo
Yobbo
15 years ago

The US figures are interesting.

I think one explanation would be that the US simply has a lot more law enforcement personnel than most other countries, so they would actually solve more crimes as a result.

For instance, both the US and Australia average about 230 police/per 100,000 population. But when you add on to this the manpower of other US agencies like the BATF, DEA, and the FBI, they have a lot more resources devoted to policing.

Secondly, the US is much more likely to impose custodial sentences for crimes that in other countries would be dealt with by “harm reduction” strategies, especially in respect to drugs or prostitution.

India is the other surprisingly figure. I suspect many crimes in India would still be dealt with under traditional laws and therefore circumvent the prison system? It’s quite surprising that they have a lower prison population than Japan.

Patrick
Patrick
15 years ago

I’ve really enjoyed reading most of Mr Somin’s Volokh Conspiracy contributions.

I’ve much less enjoyed reading Mr Lloyd’s comments. Apparently, it disturbs him that Mr Somin ‘is happy to equate people with Communists[sic] beliefs with Nazi’s[er, sic again]’ Apparently, this makes the US ‘a scary place‘, ‘truly‘.

Well, the sentence that so frightens the sensitive correspondent is this one:

It is indeed sometimes appropriate to show hostility toward
people because of their reprehensible beliefs, as in the case of
Nazis or Communists. But we generally reject such categorical
hostility toward entire religious groups such as Jews, Catholics,
or Muslims. The same principle should apply to atheists.

I for one am agog – pray tell, Chris, what mind-numbingly insignificant piece of trivia would the discerning cosmopolitan have added to this sentence so as not to offend the historically illiterate and morally bankrupt?

Rafe
15 years ago

Re #7 and #12, I presume that the US figures would be inflated by the War on Drugs (18 billion budget circa 2004, mostly spent on law enforcement) plus the normless underclass created by the Great Society welfare programs of the 1970s.

I find that 22% of prisoners in federal and state prisons were convicted of drug offences.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

The article I mention is about open discrimination against atheists in the US and some of the absurd beliefs of the majority of Americans. Over half reckon that you have to believe in god to be moral. Around one quarter have had a personal conversation with god-almighty, GWB included. That muttering weirdo in the bus seat in front of you doesn’t actually have an i-pod in his ear. He is chatting with Jesus. It is largely on the basis of their religious zealotry combined with their power that, verily, I say the US is scary.

Somin’s cited comment essentially equates Communists to Nazis because their beliefs are both “reprehensible”

Patrick
Patrick
15 years ago

I actually did regret my last paragraph – not, mind you, for the sentiments expressed!

My original included the suggested addition/ ‘Communists, of course, are vastly superior to Nazis, who discriminated viciously against Jews, gypsies and other inferior races. The communists, on the other hand, were paragons of equal opportunity before their time, believing that everyone deserved the same chance to suffer abominably and die miserably.

I had thought that would have been over the top – I regret my naivete.

Soviet emigr

c8to
c8to
15 years ago

ahh switzerland…

who would rob a home with a sig automatic in it

Patrick
Patrick
15 years ago

No-one who didn’t also intend to bash your wife and kids to death…

Tom N.
Tom N.
15 years ago

WHY OMIT CRIME IN PRISON?

KP said “Criminals don’t commit crimes (except against each other) while they’re in prison, so if you put enough of them behind bars for long enough you’ll achieve some reduction in crime.”

Why is the ‘qualification’ in the brackets only a qualification? If you’re interested in crime, and the contribution of prisons (among other things) may make in reducing it, surely the crime that goes on inside prisons is no less important than which occurs outside the walls.

Of course, no doubt many Alan Jones’ listeners do not care about the fact that inmates frequently get bashed, raped and brutalised in prison. But inmates are people too and their welfare, and crimes committed against it, is surely not worth zero.

Yobbo
Yobbo
15 years ago

Tom: of course crime that goes on inside prisons is less important than that that goes on outside.

The general public is not affected by prison crime, and therefore they don’t care about it, and don’t give it any thought when voting.

Prison crime is also the easiest to prevent (just keep all the prisoners separate at all times), but it would be too expensive, and nobody cares.

In fact there are certain sections of the community who believe that anyone sent to prison deserves everything they get. Cracking down on prison crime is more likely to lose you votes than gain them.

Ceinwen
15 years ago

It’s been quite well documented that the prison environment is much more likely to increase social or behavioral problems than solve them. The issue is over-representation, not the opposite – especially for ethnic groups, the mentally ill, and the homeless.

Prison is where people are exiled to when the dominant society has rejected them. I know I AM naive – although probably no more so than is expected of my age group – but crime as a social problem needs to be dealt with through the deconstruction of patterns of poverty, social and economic inequality and general marginalisation. Ejecting people from society until the problem goes away is not a long-term solution.