Falling crime rates: One good thing about the recession

Crime in Ireland has been in freefall as disposable income to fuel criminal activity dries up

While  burglaries and certain kinds of thefts have risen, public order crime has declined by 46 per cent from its peak in 2008, with drug crime having fallen by 35 per cent since the cocaine boom went bang along with the wider economy. And gun crime  has also declined by more than half. Photograph: iStockphoto

While burglaries and certain kinds of thefts have risen, public order crime has declined by 46 per cent from its peak in 2008, with drug crime having fallen by 35 per cent since the cocaine boom went bang along with the wider economy. And gun crime has also declined by more than half. Photograph: iStockphoto

 

With news reports constantly filled with details of shocking gun murders in Dublin and accounts of other heinous crimes elsewhere, especially in the regions, the Irish public will take some convincing that crime is in decline.

But the reality is that Ireland is an extremely safe place and has become safer and calmer every year since the economy peaked and fell off a cliff.

In a nutshell, the disposable incomes funding a lot of mayhem on the streets have long since dried up. And while the economy is slowly getting back on its feet, it may be some time before the kind of spending that fuels many crime types returns.

The accepted wisdom is that during times of recession crime goes up, partly because people who are down on their luck steal to get by. Some for-profit crimes have indeed risen, burglaries and certain kinds of thefts among them.

Freefall

Some within the Garda believe the decline in Garda numbers, by almost 2,000 members to just below 13,000 before recruitment was begun again, is at the root of the decline in reported crime. They believe when there are fewer gardaí on the beat and overtime is cut as it has been, more crimes will simply go unseen.

However, some crime types began to fall in 2007 and all were falling by 2008. But Garda numbers continued to rise until 2010.

It means the steep decline in crime had begun and was sustained and well advanced even when Garda numbers were rising fast.

Other Garda sources believe the decline in disposable incomes has resulted in fewer people having the money to fund excessive drinking, and so crime types linked to drunkenness have fallen. For example, public order crime has declined by a huge 46 per cent from its peak in 2008 to the end of last year. And criminal damage offences saw a similarly rapid decline – of 42 per cent – during the same period.

And when it comes to the drugs trade, the consumption of illicit drugs is much more firmly linked to disposable incomes than many would realise. While chronic drug addiction, and the anti-social behaviour it results in on the streets, fuels most public debate, chronic addicts account for only a fraction of the drug-using community.

The majority of those who consume drugs are so-called recreational users, smoking cannabis or using stimulant drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy as part of their “night life”. And because the majority of those drug users are not chronic addicts, they stop or reduce their drug-taking when their incomes don’t allow it.

The long-range crime trends appear to reflect this scenario, with drug crime having fallen by 35 per cent since the cocaine boom went bang along with the wider economy in 2008.

Specifically, the offence of possession of drugs for sale or supply is down 21 per cent, from 4,301 offences in 2008 to 3,378 last year. And possession of drugs for personal use is down 39 per cent – 18,093 cases in 2008 against 10,962 in 2015.

Inextricably linked

Incidents involving the illegal discharging of a firearm are down 53 per cent and illegal possession of a firearm is down 54 per cent.

While the gun violence witnessed this year as part of the so-called Kinahan-Hutch feud is shocking, it is very much against the run of play in the underworld since the drugs trade peaked.

The period from about 2009-2010 to the end of last year was much calmer than the previous decade, when there were several gun feuds in Limerick and various parts of Dublin all unfolding at once.

And aside from the Hutch-Kinahan feud this year, there have been few gun murders.

But the contracting of the drugs market comes with a trade-off.

Gardaí believe a major factor in burglary rates climbing higher in the recession – by 11 per cent – was that small-time drug dealers were squeezed out of the drugs trade and used break-ins to replace or supplement their drug-dealing income.

With a major Garda drive against burglary gangs running for 12 to 18 months now, there was a 26 per cent drop in offending in the 12 months to June 30th.

The recovery in the economy should soon begin to aid those trends, but only because burglars will become street drug dealers again when the demand for drugs returns.