Chalk + Talk: What really makes crime go down?

Everyone has an opinion on how we should control crime – and most of the time it is far from evidence-based.

We now know a great deal more about the facts of crime reduction than we think we do – but the facts seldom seem to penetrate crime policy or practice. In last week’s ESRC-sponsored Chalk + Talk event, the SMF hosted Gloria Laycock, JDI Professor of Crime Science at UCL, who presented 7 key facts about crime, together with their implications for how to effectively reduce crime rates.


Fact 1: Opportunity Makes a Thief

Evidence suggests that opportunism accounts for a substantial proportion of crime rates. Consider motorcycle thefts in Germany, for instance. Rates of motorcycle theft had been increasing dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, until in 1980 motorcycle helmet laws were enacted. Offenders wanting to steal a motorbike then had to have a helmet with them, or else risk being spotted easily. In the 1980s theft rates dropped dramatically. Similar trends can be found in other countries adopting helmet legislation.

Fact 2: Displacement is not inevitable

But motorcycle thieves didn’t simply all start stealing cars instead. Rates of car theft didn’t go up by nearly as much as motorcycle thefts went down: displacement from one type of crime to another is not inevitable.

To demonstrate this point further, consider the example of suicide rates. Suicide by gas was once common, when household gas contained substantial quantities of carbon monoxide. By the 1970s, this type of gas was phased out and replaced by ‘natural gas’, which is much less dangerous. But as suicide rates by gas declined, so did overall rates – those inclined to commit suicide by gas generally didn’t switch to another method instead.

Fact 3: Offenders adapt

Offenders are also highly responsive to potential rewards, and how these rewards change over time. Consider copper thefts compared to the price of copper. In 2006 copper prices increased sharply, and were followed very closely by a sharp increase in copper thefts. Rates then dropped following a decrease in the price by early 2007, then increased again as prices rose once more.

Fact 4: Crime is concentrated

Crime is concentrated in different ways. We know there are geographical hotpots of crime. And we know there are ‘hot products’ that are much more likely to be stolen. But we also know there are ‘hot offenders’ – the most persistent 5% of offenders are responsible for 50% of all crime. However, the remaining crimes are committed by a very broad range of people – 35% of males will have a conviction by the age of 46, but with half of these convicted only once, and mostly more relatively minor crimes.

There are, therefore, two kinds of offender: ‘opportunistic offenders’, who are many in number but easily deterred; and ‘professional offenders’, who are small in number but not easily deterred. The problem is that we try to deal with both types in the same way – by relying on police services and courts to arrest and prosecute them. This may be an appropriate enough response to professional offenders, but opportunistic offenders would be much more easily deterred – and crime rates would fall much more quickly – if we reduced opportunities for offending.

Crime is also concentrated on a small number of victims. 4.3% of victims account for 43.5% of experiences of crime. We can do more to reduce the incidence of crime by providing more support and protection to repeat victims. Indeed, victimisation predicts future risk: the more often a person has been a victim, the higher the probability they will be victimised again.

Fact 5: Bad guys do little bad things as well as big bad things

What is known about how to catch repeat offenders? A study of minor parking offences highlighted that offenders were much more likely to be wanted by the police for other crimes. Of all cars illegally parked in a disabled bay over the study period, 21% were known to people and categorised as ‘immediate police interest’. Nearby legally parked cars were much less likely to be known to the police: just 2% were classified as ‘immediate police interest’. It may be much easier to catch organised criminals by arresting them for something else, since they are much more likely to offend in multiple ways.

Fact 6: The Criminal Justice System doesn’t reduce crime

Conventional policing has limits. Of all crimes by respondents of the British Crime Survey, just 50% are reported to police, and only 30% are recorded. Only 2% result in a conviction. We cannot, therefore, control crime by using the Criminal Justice System alone. Most offenders do not get caught – if we want to bring crime down something else must be done.

Fact 7: Crime has been dropping for over 20 years

Despite widespread perceptions that crime is on an upward spiral, it has in fact been decreasing for 20 years. Part of this story has to do with a huge 88% decline in vehicle crime since the early 1990s. Experiences with vehicle crime are instructive for reducing crime more generally. In 1992, with vehicle crime at its peak, a number of developments caused a change in the way cars were built. First, the ‘car theft index’ was published, putting car manufacturers and models into six bands to show the rates of vehicle crime for owners of that model. Second, insurance companies started to refuse to insure high value cars. The car industry responded by adopting immobilisers and alarms. Making vehicle crime more difficult – reducing the opportunities to commit crime – led to massive falls in offending rates.

You can listen to a recording of Professor Laycock’s session below and you can download slides from the presentation here.

Chalk + Talk is the SMF’s popular lunchtime seminar series, run in partnership with the ESRC. Chalk + Talk brings the best policy output from the world of academia into the heart of Westminster.

Image Sponsor Logo ESRC


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