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Hard Evidence: crime rates are down, but is the world a less harmful place?

Since the early to mid-1990s, several Western nations have recorded year-on-year declines for various types of criminal activity. And though there have been recorded increases in some crime types – the recent rises in recorded numbers of sexual offences in England and Wales is a prominent example – the overall pattern has been one of decline. These trends have been observed in the UK, North America and in several European nations. They are predominantly based on the findings of large-scale victimisation surveys, which ask households about their experiences of crime, without requiring them to report to the police.

Governments and criminologists have been left puzzling over this apparent decline. What has been even more surprising is that the downward trend has continued during the onset of the global financial crisis; a period when it was anticipated by some that crime would actually increase. Improved security measures and resulting reductions in criminal opportunities, as well as increased rates of incarceration and changes to policing practices, are just some explanations that have been put forward.

A prettier picture

For some time now, scholars such as Steven Pinker have been telling us that – contrary to the picture of disorder, chaos and threat regularly presented in the popular press – we have actually become progressively more “civilised” and less violent, aggressive and harmful towards one another.

The BBC’s Mark Easton has explained falls in the numbers of reported violent crimes in similar terms. He tells us not to panic, because crime is actually decreasing. In a similar vein to Pinker, Easton suggests that the reductions could be attributable to the emergence of a new morality that is less tolerant of aggressive behaviour.

Within politics, these figures have been met with optimism. In 2014, during his tenure as home office minister, Norman Baker claimed that there is now “less for the police to do”.

A safer world?

While there is cause to welcome a potential decline in crime, we should think twice before drawing the line between falling crime rates and a growth in harmonious social relations. It seems an easy link to make, but such assertions gloss over the complexities in the current picture of crime and harm. Although the instruments used by the victimisation survey to generate these figures have become more sophisticated over time, we know that they remain severely limited in a number of respects. For one thing, there are restrictions as to whom they can survey, and what crimes they can ask participants about.

Generally, victimisation surveys – like the Crime Survey for England and Wales – are focused on uncovering the extent of property crimes and some violent crimes. The problem is that “crime” obviously encompasses far more than this very narrow set of acts. Crime is a contested concept that is variable by context, and is bound to rigid legislation. So one of the outcomes of the surveys is to limit the debate about what is considered harmful in society to a certain set of criminal activities. This inevitably renders some crimes and harmful activities “invisible” and unacknowledged, which means they are less likely to be the subject of further study and investigation.

For example, Professor Tim Hope reminds us that inequality is known to affect the likelihood of someone becoming a victim. So crime may be falling, but perhaps it is more important to ask whether it is falling evenly, everywhere. For instance, in parts of Central America, homicide rates have risen dramatically in recent months; a trend largely concentrated among the region’s poorest populations.

On patrol in El Salvador. Oscar Rivera/EPA

In a global context where security has become a commodity, greater wealth enables better protection and insulation from crime. Current global inequalities, in terms of access to safety and security, beg the question of who is, and more importantly who is not, benefiting from any potential crime decline?

Poorer groups are more reliant on the police for protection: forces in England and Wales are currently having to manage severe cuts to their budgets, and have already warned that they will have to prioritise their responses to crimes. This concerning statement flies in the face of Norman Baker’s optimistic assertions about the amount of crime that police officers are currently having to deal with.

Off the radar

Crucially, a lot of crime is never recorded for various reasons. Many corporate, environmental, financial and organised crimes still lie outside the investigative radar of both governments and criminologists, and very often manage to escape identification as illegal activity. Various crimes are concentrated in “hidden” spaces, such as the home, the workplace, and within cyberspace.

If we return to the issue of violence for example, the amount of domestic violence in England and Wales is seriously underestimated in official statistics gathered through victimisation surveys. Meanwhile, cyberspace has extended opportunities for individuals to trade in illicit goods, as well as to harass and intimidate others, away from the watchful glare of CCTV, the police, and the public.

The fall in crime rates certainly offers some potentially comforting reading. But we must not lose sight of the limitations of the surveys that produce them. Nor can we ignore the fact that they mask a complex picture of unreported crimes, mutating criminality, and harmful activities that can escape detection. Our commitment should be to develop a clearer understanding of these complexities, and the current inequalities and social divisions that overlap with crime.

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