Crime can be reduced and controlled, but not eliminated


Economic and cultural shifts in society are more likely to have an impact on the level of crime than the criminal justice system, writes Ian O'Donnell

One important fact is often overlooked in the regular bouts of concern about crime rates, and whether they are rising or falling. This is that crime is a normal feature of social life. It can never be eliminated.

The best we can hope to achieve is a fuller understanding of its causes and consequences, a reduction in criminal opportunities, and a proportionate response to lawbreakers.

The level of crime reflects the way that a society is organised. For example in Ireland during the 1950s the safety valve of emigration meant that many potential offenders took the boat to England. This depressed the level of criminal activity at home.

Similarly there is evidence that the atomisation of society can lead to fearfulness, disorganisation and crime. Recent years have been marked by a decline in "social capital". This refers to the extent to which people are connected to one another through networks of shared values, in particular the frequency with which they engage in face-to-face interactions.

This decline has deleterious consequences for civic engagement, levels of trust between individuals, and co-operative activities within communities. One survey of US literature concluded that states with more social capital had proportionately fewer murders. This inverse relationship was astonishingly strong.

It would be naive to think that complex changes like these could be reversed by putting additional gardaí on the beat, the usual cry heard during times of perceived crisis.

Furthermore, the official crime statistics provide at best a partial glimpse of criminal activity around the country. Primarily this is because not all crime is reported or recorded. In addition, its coverage is limited to offences investigated by An Garda Síochána.

There are other authorities that deal with criminal activity, some of which is very serious.

For example, last year there were 58 homicides, while 61 people died from injuries sustained at the workplace. Some of these deaths at work resulted from flagrant law breaking by employers.

Other bodies that investigate crime include the Health and Safety Authority, Revenue Commissioners, Director of Corporate Enforcement, Environmental Protection Agency, An Post, Department of Social and Family Affairs and county councils. Given the range of authorities involved and the fact that the statistical information they produce is not collated systematically, it is difficult to get a handle on the overall shape of the problem and how it might be changing.

To further complicate matters there is no single cause of crime at which resources can be directed. Tax evasion, drink-driving, fraud and industrial pollution are likely to have different determinants than rape, arson, robbery and bicycle theft. Often when citizens feel besieged by crime, however imperfectly measured, the State flexes its muscles by resorting to an increased use of imprisonment. This is a concrete sign that action is being taken. It has important symbolic value.

The war on crime in Britain and the US in recent years has placed a heavy reliance on the notion that "prison works".

In the US the population in captivity has doubled from one million to two million since 1990. In England and Wales over the same period the rise has been from 46,000 to 74,000.

Although it has grown significantly in recent years the Irish prison population remains relatively small. Applying the US incarceration rate to Ireland would result in 27,500 people behind bars instead of 3,200 as at present.

A policy of mass incarceration might be a price worth paying if it resulted in a safer society. But while prison clearly has some impact on crime through incapacitation and deterrence, it does not seem to ease public fears. It may even have the opposite effect. Perhaps the more we punish the more anxious we actually become.

A soaring prison population is seen as a sign that the problem is out of control. This confirms and intensifies concern: why do we have so many people behind bars unless things have really taken a turn for the worse?

Just as the level of crime ebbs and flows so too does public anxiety. In 1982 when recorded crime was heading for a peak, an opinion poll carried out for this newspaper asked voters what they thought would be the most important issue in the forthcoming general election.

Unemployment was selected by 36 per cent. Crime and law and order were the choice of 0 per cent. In other words at a time when people appeared to be at increased risk they were not preoccupied by crime.

In another poll, this time carried out before the 1997 election, when the political temperature had been raised by the murders of Gerry McCabe and Veronica Guerin, the public put crime at the top of the list. Paradoxically, at this time, according to the Garda statistics, the level of crime had actually begun to fall.

The fluctuating nature of public anxiety is captured by yet another Irish Times poll, carried out earlier this year. Crime finished a poor sixth to health, the cost of living, unemployment, the economy and education.

There are a number of useful lessons here. First, social change is slow and difficult to direct. The greatest impact on the level of crime is likely to come from forces operating outside the criminal justice system, for example through economic and cultural shifts.

Second, there is a poor relationship between public anxiety and the crime rate. The former does not provide a sound basis for policy making for the latter.

Third, available information remains patchy. This makes it difficult to anticipate the consequences of any efforts at crime reduction.

Dr Ian O'Donnell is deputy director, Institute of Criminology, Faculty of Law, UCD.