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What causes crime?

This article is over 20 years, 1 months old
CRIME IS a major issue today. In the \"if it bleeds, it leads\" world of the media, stories of pensioners beaten for pennies and children shot for their mobiles make great headlines. JUDY COX looks behind the lurid headlines to examine the reality and
Issue 1800

THE LEVEL of crime is exaggerated by politicians and the media. But crime and fear of crime are real. Of course, the TV and papers generally ignore the crimes committed by big business. And we rarely hear about the daily routine of crime committed in the City by financiers and businessmen.

The crimes that get most attention are burglary, assault, robbery, and the like. The victims of such crimes are overwhelmingly working class, and disproportionately the poor and unemployed. Most crimes that lead to prosecution are not committed by Mr Big type professional criminals. Nor are they the work of some evil underclass that preys on the law abiding majority.

These crimes have social roots. They are committed by working class people who have been driven to take desperate measures by poverty and alienation. It is important to challenge the myths pushed by the media and politicians. The British Crime Survey (BCS) provides the most accurate picture of crime. It is based on interviews with the public on what has happened to them, not just crimes reported to the police.

According to the BCS crime fell by a third between 1995 and 2000, and it is still falling now. In 2000 the proportion of people who became victims of any sort of crime was the lowest ever recorded by the BCS. Nevertheless crime happens, and the government’s own figures give a clear indication of the key factors behind it.

The Home Office produced a survey of the patterns of criminal convictions across the 20th century. It shows that the level of all crime, against property and people, is linked to the state of the economy.

During the depression-racked 1930s the crime rate soared. Crimes also rose sharply in the recessions of the early 1980s and the early 1990s.

In contrast, during the booming decade of the 1950s crime fell every year. Poverty and unemployment tear people’s lives apart, wrecking their personal relationships and deepening people’s sense of alienation, so making it much more likely that they may commit crime.

Today crime rates are visibly higher in areas where traditional industries have been destroyed. Other factors are also important. Where governments cut social provision for the disadvantaged, the weakest and most vulnerable people end up being criminalised as a result. According to one expert, an astonishing 90 percent of those in prison have mental illnesses.

These people are often in jail because they were unable to cope with the stress and brutality of everyday life, and then cracked in one way or another. Others who can’t cope turn to alcohol or drugs, themselves a key factor in driving people to criminal actions.

Crispin Truman, director of the Revolving Doors Agency, says, ‘A significant number of vulnerable people with mental health, drug, alcohol and housing problems end up in the criminal justice system every year. Many are not getting help from health or social care agencies.’ The system criminalises the mentally ill, and those with alcohol and drug problems. It does the same to young working class people.

Today around a quarter of all offenders are between ten and 17 years old. In part this is a result of the criminalisation of groups of young people who don’t seem to be engaged in organised leisure activities. Middle class young people have much more access to activities such as music and sport, and to other leisure facilities.

In many working class communities these things are much scarcer, or have been cut by government and local councils. That leaves many young working class people with little alternative but to meet up with friends, and hang around streets and estates looking for something to do.

For some older people such groups can seem threatening. That fear is itself partly a reflection of the alienation and atomisation in people’s lives, in which they are isolated from those living around them. And it is a fear and suspicion reinforced by the media and politicians demonising young working class people, and by the way police target and criminalise such groups.

A small minority of young people left in such a situation can get drawn into crime. Poverty and deprivation cause youth crime both directly and indirectly. Many young people are often denied the dignity of education and work, and receive no benefits. They have no legitimate way of getting money. Others are abandoned by the system.

A study of young people in police custody found that 86 percent had been excluded from school. Many slipped through the net completely and were left to fill lonely hours without money, resources and help. Young people grow up in a society that tells them they can only express themselves and establish their personalities by owning things.

Possessions appear to be the path to approval, popularity and sex appeal. No wonder a small number of those who cannot afford to buy into the life dangled in front of them can be driven to steal it.

These teenagers who commit crimes are not a separate breed of evil villains threatening the whole of society-they are themselves the most frequent victims of crime. The teenage boys hanging round estates are themselves five times more likely to be the victims of crime than the rest of us.

For example, unemployed men are both more likely to commit crimes and three times more likely to be the victims of crime than those with jobs.

NEW LABOUR’S policies of ‘getting tough’ on crime actually make things worse, not better. While the media frenzy feeds on stories of criminals laughing at the law, between 1990 and 2000 the courts became ever more punitive. Those found guilty of violent crimes and sexual offences were twice as likely to be sent to prison as ten years earlier.

Those guilty of handling stolen goods are three times more likely to be sent down than ten years ago. These people come out of prison more damaged, isolated, excluded from jobs and housing, and more likely to reoffend.

Many simple steps could quickly reduce the suffering caused by crime. The authorities could stop victimising sex workers, already 80 percent more likely than the average to suffer crime. They could make provision for the homeless, who are 50 percent more likely than average to be victims of crime.

They could stop flooding the overcrowded prisons which are the most violent institutions in society, with between 30 and 40 percent of prisoners being the victims of assault or robbery every month. The association that looks after offenders, Nacro, says some measures could have an immediate impact on crime.

Housing is a key issue. ‘Sustained reductions in crime are built on the foundation of decent, affordable housing.’ says Nacro. A lack of late night transport, it argues, leads to higher rates of alcohol-related crime, and congested roads lead to road rage.

Levels of staff in public places also affect levels of crime. Sexual offences on London Underground rocketed in the year staff levels on stations were cut. Tackling poverty, insecurity and deprivation, and regenerating inner cities would help even more. Such measures would do more to cut crime than all the government’s sick gimmicks.

In the longer term ending crime means challenging the capitalist society that creates the poverty, and the alienation which it breeds. That system makes us compete against each other for jobs and houses, rewards the ruthless and punishes the weak.

Capitalism breeds alienation, isolation and frustration by depriving us of any real control over our lives. As Frederick Engels, one of the founders of Marxism, wrote over 150 years ago, ‘Present day society, which breeds hostility between the individual and everyone else, produces a social war of all against all, which inevitably in individual cases assumes a brutal form-crime.’

Only when this society is replaced with one based instead on solidarity, and collective organisation and ownership, will crime recede into a marginal and unimportant feature of society.

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