It seems everyone wants to reduce crime, but when it comes to
discussion of the best strategies to achieve this laudable objective,
agreement becomes much harder to reach. Proposals range from nurturing the
un-nurtured and understanding the misunderstood, to strengthening families
and communities, to building bigger walls and getting stronger locks, to
policing more aggressively, to imposing severe jail sentences and throwing
away the key, to inflicting cruel and unusual punishments.
In very few areas of public policy does everybody consider themselves
an expert. We leave policy on defence, health, transport, the economy,
communications (and so on) to appropriate experts, yet on crime reduction
policy everyone has their own expert opinion on what 'they oughta' do. In
this article, for what they are worth, I offer my own views on the crime
Has crime changed over the years?
Every generation will tell their young that it was better in the old
days - when you could leave your doors unlocked, sleep with your windows
open, and leave your keys in your car. My colleague Peter Grabosky
published a book entitled Sydney in Ferment on crime in colonial Sydney,
which showed that the city was in fact a lot more dangerous in its early
days than it is today. Paradoxically, although most of Australia is
comparatively safe, the incidence of crime is much greater than it was 20
years ago. Criminal activity hurts and outrages people, and costs the
community billions of dollars.
Not surprisingly then, the one question the media always ask is:
"Is the crime rate up or down"? However, at base this is not a
helpful question. (How long is a piece of string? Are tomatoes better than
cauliflowers?) The definition of crime is itself a moving target.
What mattered 100 years ago and what we consider unacceptable today are
in some respects very different. A century ago there was great concern
about drunkenness, gambling, and 'Chinese opium dens'. Yet a century ago,
crimes such as superannuation fraud, health insurance and Medicare fraud,
theft of telecommunications services, electronic vandalism and varieties
of computer hacking, credit card fraud, internet child pornography,
electronic funds transfer crime and electronic money laundering were not
even on the criminal horizon. (Nor for obvious reasons was there any motor
vehicle theft!) However, nude or even topless bathing, or homosexual acts
between consenting adults brought criminal sanctions, and public
drunkenness comprised more than half of all offences brought before the
magistrates' courts in the early years of the twentieth century, and this
persisted until the 1950s.
On a per capita basis, considerably fewer people today appear before
the courts than did 100 years ago. Of those who do, fewer go to jail.
Today, women who appear topless on the beach, and men who have sex with
other consenting men, don't find themselves before the court. In both
cases they regularly did a generation ago. On the other hand, men who
bashed their wives or children a generation ago did not find themselves
before the court, but they do today.
Why then do we have the crime we do? Ideologically polarised positions
offer competing explanations for increases in crime. One end of the
spectrum of views blames permissiveness, bankrupt moral values, contempt
for authority, inadequate penalties, while those at the other end of the
spectrum blame poor social conditions, unemployment, lack of life and
educational opportunity, poverty traps, deprivation, and so on.
There may be other ways to look at the issue beyond these opposing
views, however. From a different perspective, there are probably many more
opportunities than ever before for criminal behaviour. One could argue
that the crime we have is the price we pay for living in a part of the
world that offers high material benefits and a very mobile lifestyle. Put
that against a context of tremendous social and technological change, and
we have a complex set of ingredients that don't seem to fit the standard
How do we reduce it? In essence there are two main challenges in crime
reduction from a systemic (as opposed to moral) point of view. One is to
reduce the supply of motivated offenders, the other is to make crime more
difficult to commit.
Do we have a law and order problem?
Participants in the law and order debate, or the part of it that
focuses on crime rates, are at once cursed and blessed with an abundance
of statistics. Such data are produced by police, then aggregated and
worked by the Australian Bureau of Statistics into uniform national crime
figures. But what do the statistics mean? Not all crimes are reported to
the police, not all that are reported are recorded, not all that are
recorded are acted upon, not all that are acted upon result in an
apprehension, not all apprehensions lead to a court appearance, not all
court appearances lead to a trial, not all trials lead to a conviction,
and not all convictions lead to a penalty. The figures we choose to use
will make a significant difference to the sense we get of the law and
It is a complicated picture. What measure shall we use to judge the
'law and order problem'? Certainly, crime has increased recently. But the
details defy this simple characterisation. Australia is a less violent
society today than it was 100 years ago, but more violent than 20 years
ago, though today's rates of property crime appear higher than 100 years
Even so, most places have no crime, and crime is highly concentrated in
a relatively small number of places. Some shops have no robberies, while a
few have lots. A few entertainment venues have a lot of problems; most
have none. Even in high-burglary neighbourhoods most residences have no
burglaries, while a few suffer from repeat burglaries. It will come as no
surprise to note that crime is not an equal-opportunity predator. That is;
who you are, where you live, who you know, and who you hang around with
all affect your chances of victimisation.