Poverty and inequality not key reasons for law breaking

Fri, Aug 24, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:CRIME HAS fallen sharply since the economy crashed. There are three likely explanations for less lawlessness: more jailing, fewer youths and lower consumption of intoxicants.

Before looking at the likely causes of falling crime, it is worth debunking the notion that recession, poverty and inequality make people break laws.

Reported crime rates in Europe and North America rose sharply in the three decades from the 1950s, despite the advent of mass prosperity. In most European countries more recently, crime rates have continued to rise or stabilised. Recessions have had no discernible effect.

Nor has poverty. Worldwide homicide rates illustrate this. They show a link between income levels and killings is non-existent. Russia, a middle-income country, has a very high murder rate. India has more people living on less than $1 a day than any other country, but its murder rate is a fraction of Russia’s. Colombians are richer than Bolivians but are five times more likely to kill each other. Slovenians are far poorer than the Austrians with whom they share a border, but the murder rate in both states is low.

Nor is income inequality a cause of crime, as the US’s experience over more than two decades shows. In the 1980s, America’s cities were notoriously dangerous. To walk in New York’s Central Park or Times Square after dark was to take your life in your hands. Now, late in summer evenings, families can stroll down Broadway. A two-decade fall in crime rates in the US has taken place despite a marked widening of income inequality in that time.

The only link between economic slump and law-breaking seen internationally is between unemployment and property crime. With burglaries one of the only types of crime to have risen since the crash, Ireland fits this pattern perfectly.

So if recession, poverty and inequality have little effect on crime rates, what does? While there is a serious, if inconclusive, debate in the US on the causes of crime and how it can be reduced, European criminologists have had little to say on the matter. This is all the more remarkable given that most crime rates in Europe – contrary to the prejudices of many Europeans – are now higher than in the US (murder is a key exception).

One reason for this transatlantic “reversal of misfortune” is that in the US felons are behind bars in vast numbers. The US incarceration rate is about eight times the European average.

International evidence suggests prison is not effective in rehabilitating the villainous and has a limited deterrent effect, but does cut crime rates. Why? Because somebody in jail is not capable of harming those outside.

In the four years to 2011, when Irish crime rates started to fall sharply, a massive 45 per cent rise in prison committals took place. That was a radical change over the four previous years when the numbers locked up hardly changed, and crime was rising.

Correlation does not prove causation, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that greater resort to custodial sentencing, which remains low by international standards, has cut crime rates.

A second big change that coincides with the recent fall in crime is demographic. Young men commit the vast bulk of crime. If that age cohort’s share of the population changes, then crime rates can move too.

Last year’s census revealed an astonishing fall in the proportion of 16- to 30-year-old men in the population. For decades the proportion had been quite steady, at just under one in eight. But between 2006 and 2011 it fell by 15 per cent – a figure broadly similar to the average decline in crime rates in recent years.

The third factor that is likely to have caused the fall in crime is a reduction in consumption of narcotics and alcohol. There is a well-established link between crime and drug use – both legal and illegal – via a number of channels. This newspaper’s Crime Correspondent, Conor Lally, has reported extensively on the slump in the narcotics trade since the bust.

Hard data on drinking show a very big decline in consumption. As measured by units of pure alcohol consumed per person every year, Department of Health figures show almost no change between 2003 and 2007, but in the next two years consumption fell by almost one-fifth. More sobriety leads to less delinquency.

Economic insecurity has risen in recent years for reasons that are well understood, in part owing to the role economists have played in explaining the issues. The decline in physical insecurity is less well understood. Criminologists should do more explaining.


Dan O’Brien is Economics Editor

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