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The system that creates crime

This article is over 15 years, 6 months old
Official statistics underestimate the true level of violent crime, argues Will McMahon, but the government doesn’t address the real problems
Issue 2010
illustration by Tim Sanders

illustration by Tim Sanders

Britain is a largely contented society,” wrote Blairite thinker Geoff Mulgan in a recent Guardian article. For New Labour, we are living in a country with a vibrant economy where opportunity and wealth are cascading down.

True, there are pockets of deprivation, where the core of criminal and anti-social families can be found, but overall things are going quite well.

The government claims success in cutting crime because according to the British Crime Survey people are experiencing five million fewer crimes than in 1997.

Tougher laws, summary fines, privatised prisons and a concentration on 100,000 mainly working class offenders that the government claims are responsible for half of all crime, is creating a criminal justice system that is “fit for purpose”.

This rhetoric chimes with the Middle England mindset that it is a small number of people who are responsible for most crime, that they are mainly from working class families and they can be spotted as pre-crime children – a task which the government has recently turned its attention to.

Yet the claims of success in cutting crime are false. The use of statistics mask the criminal justice system’s inability to do very much to reduce the level of crime and harm in Britain.

Both allegations recorded by the police, standing at around five million annually, and the British Crime Survey, an annual survey of 40,000 that asks people about their experience of crime and is currently registering 11 million crimes, miss the bulk of crime.

Tony Blair’s former “blue sky thinker” John Birt, estimated an annual total of 130 million crimes in 2000. More rigorous home office research published in the same year put the total at a more modest 60 million. This would mean a conviction rate of less than 2 percent.

In an unusually candid moment in 2001, Blair said that the government’s social programmes aimed at poor areas amounted to a “crime-fighting strategy for tackling the 97 percent of crime that never gets to the courts”.

If you owned something that only worked 2, or even 3, percent of the time, would you keep it? Yet reliable research shows a 1 percent probability of conviction for rape and sexual assault. Burglary convictions come in at 4 percent and robbery 9 percent.

Many uninsured people on low incomes simply do not bother to report crimes against them. As readers of this newspaper will be aware, widespread white collar and business crime goes largely unrecorded, unprosecuted and unconvicted.

Put simply, the criminal justice system is useless in dealing with the overwhelming bulk of crime and harm in society.

These facts, and this kind of argument, often make penal reformers anxious. Highlighting the scale of hidden crime and harm levels leaves one open to charges of scaremongering and making penal reforms harder – that it risks stirring up a moral panic that will be exploited by the conservative press to punitive ends.

These fears fail to acknowledge that public minds can be changed and that attempts to “talk down” the level of crime may not correspond with people’s lived experience and may encourage their political affiliation to those who wish to exploit their anxiety.

The endemic nature of crime suggests that there is something more systemic at work than the claimed 100,000 persistent offenders the government directs public attention towards.

The rise in homicide figures offers a clue. Danny Dorling has analysed homicides from 1981 to 2000. He found that the strongest determinant of an individual’s likelihood of being murdered was poverty.

The risk decreased for the rich. The rise in murder victims was concentrated almost exclusively in men of working age living in the poorest parts of Britain who grew up in the era of mass unemployment that was the 1980s.

The rising homicide rates during the 1980s and 1990s were the result of profound and lasting social, economic and political changes.

Rather than individual pathologies, it is likely that the mass of crime and harms that take place in Britain are driven by structural and power inequalities.

This means that not only are the poor most likely to be victims and the most imprisoned, but also that the home office, the police, the courts and the prisons are wholly irrelevant to long term solutions.

Changes in societal structures, rather than government departments or reforms to the penal system, are required.

Will McMahon is the Acting Director of the Crime and Society Foundation, Kings College, London.

The foundation has launched a public debate on the ideas in this article. To see the argument in detail and to take part visit Danny Dorling’s essay “Prime Suspect” can be found in the publication “Criminal Obsessions”

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