by Kim Workman
In a recent visit to New Zealand to speak at the Leading Justice Seminar, Dr Gloria Laycock, for Crime Science at the Jill Dando Centre ,University of London, made quite an impression with her down-to –earth analysis on the problem of crime (rather than the problem of criminals).
Nine to Noon’s Catherine Ryan skyped Professor Laycock a couple of weeks later, and talked to her about the reasons for the reduction of crime throughout the western world – a steady decline in crime that has taken place over the last twenty years. Prof Laycock was quick to commend the Police for introducing the ‘Prevention First’ strategy, which has become entrenched in Police thinking over the last 3 -4 years. Listen to the interview
It caused me to reflect on the great work Commission Howard Broad did with the Policing Excellence’ and ‘Prevention First’ strategies - he was an extremely gifted and forward thinking strategist and policy maker.
In a no-nonsense response, Dr Laycock made it clear that while it was great to see politicians involved, it was implausible for them to take credit for any drop in crime. As she pointed out, the reason that car crime is down 70% and burglaries down 60% in the UK, has nothing to do with political policies or ‘three strikes for burglars’. Cars and house are just that much harder to get into – deadlocks, security technology has made it more difficult to steal property, hence the reduction in those offences. In New Zealand, a recent AAA survey showed that thieves prefer older vehicles as they tend to have less sophisticated security features and are often easier to steal. AA Insurance found that 89 per cent of theft claims relating to models in the top 10 list were for cars manufactured more than 10 years ago. Sixty-six per cent of the vehicles on the list were manufactured before 2000.s
Gloria then talked about the ‘multiplier effect’ – that most crime is committed by (mostly) young men aged 16 – 18 years. When the opportunity to commit crime no longer exists, a great many young men don’t enter the criminal justice system at all. They don’t start on the ‘crime ladder’ and, given that most young offenders quit by the time they turn 24 years of age, don't feature at all in the system. That in turn leads to less violence. We know that offenders with longer criminal careers are more violent – especially if they have spent time in prison.
There is a parallel situation in New Zealand. The crime rate has been trending downwards over the last twenty years with a significant drop in the last three. This last year the number of recorded offences was at its lowest since 1989, and the rate of recorded crime is the lowest since 1979. The youth crime rate has also decreased significantly. The rate of apprehensions of children and young people fell by 23 per cent between 2002 and 2011.
Part of that drop is due to a change in demographics - Following World War II, the rise of the Baby Boomer generation dramatically increased the number of young people in this crime-prone age group. As this Baby Boomer cohort has aged, so the number of young people in the 15 to 24 year old age group - sometimes called the “Echo Boomers” has reduced – and with it crime.
In 1971, young people in the 15 to 24 age group made up 17.3 percent of the general population. By 2006, the number had fallen to 14.4 percent - a 20 percent decrease. The proportion of Māori in that 15 to 24 age group, which was 8.5 percent in 1971, has more than doubled to 19.2 percent in 2006 – certainly a factor contributing to the high Māori offending rate. The number of 15 – 24 year olds has plateaued, and , will continue to decline until 2023. Even if we stood by and watched, the crime rate is going to fall further.
What could we be doing more of? Dr Laycock pointed to the obvious fact that alcohol consumption is a feature in most violent crime – we have been gutless in addressing and reducing the public consumption and availability of alcohol, especially for young people.
Most importantly, she urged the government not to invest the savings from the ongoing reduction of crime into other sectors, but experiment with a range of new and innovative approaches within the justice system. The introduction of problem solving courts was one possibility. In New Zealand, the establishment of Drug Courts, has proceeded at a snail’s pace.
Her final point as that we must resist the temptation to overuse technology to the point that we become a ‘surveillance society’. That while we should embrace new ways of doing things – there is a basic requirement to act ethically, and to acknowledge the inherent dignity we have as human beings. We are most importantly, obliged to observe basic human rights.