Big drop in crime is a sign of shift in society, say experts

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The Independent Online

The chance of falling victim to a criminal offence is at its lowest level in two decades after a 12 per cent fall in the crime rate last year.

The Home Office published results of the British Crime Survey showing violent offences fell by 19 per cent, domestic burglary by 17 per cent and vehicle-related thefts by 11 per cent in 2000.

Criminologists, once resigned to the inevitability of a rising number of offences, said the steady fall since 1995 appeared to show a fundamental shift in the nature of society. Professor Paul Wiles, the director of research at the Home Office, said the long-term downturn in crime was "unprecedented".

He added: "If you look at what's been happening to crime in the past century, you have had a rise in the range of 5 per cent a year. We've now had a range of years where that hasn't happened. If it continues it will have broken what was a century-long historic trend."

In a preface to the survey, the Home Office said traditional models for predicting crime patterns may have to be rethought "as growing evidence emerges that there has been a departure from historic crime trends".

Anthony Bottoms, professor of criminology at the University of Cambridge, said that since 1955 all industrialised nations (except Japan) had come to accept an increase in crime as a consequence of the gradual breakdown of "informal social controls", including traditional family structures and formal schooling. He added: "Maybe what we are seeing is a cessation of the old-style underlying increase [in crime] and we are moving to a different scene in which crime rates are flattening out or decreasing."

The "late-modern society" was developing its own new forms of social control, he said, and gave as an example the changing attitude to drink-driving, which has become socially unacceptable.

The authors of the British Crime Survey (BCS), which involved detailed interviews with 9,000 people on their experiences of crime in 2000, agreed that traditional areas of criminality might be being displaced by other types of offending, reflecting changes to society.

They said: "It is possible the nature of crime is changing, and crimes of the future will less concern the familiar household crimes – such as burglary or vehicle theft – but rather new types of crime involving fraud, or the internet, or personal crimes such as stalking or sexual abuse."

The BCS is regarded as the most accurate indicator of crime in Britain, but the figures do not include fraud or offences committed against businesses. They also omit crimes committed against people under 16, which may explain why the BCS found offences of robbery had dropped by 22 per cent while police statistics recorded an increase of 21 per cent. Mr Wiles said many victims of robbery were schoolchildren attacked by other youngsters for their mobile telephones.

The Home Office minister John Denham said the fall in crime was "encouraging" but he remained concerned that nearly 60 per cent of the public still believed crime was on the increase.

Despite the drop, the Government will continue plans to recruit thousands more police officers, partly in an effort to reassure the public. Just under 27 per cent of adults were victims of crime in 2000, compared with 28 per cent when the survey began in 1981, and 39 per cent in 1995. It was the third crime-rate fall in a row recorded by the survey, and the total number of crimes reported by victims was a third lower than its peak in 1995. The concerted fall is partly a result of a strong economy and technological breakthroughs in household and vehicle security, which all contributed to a fall in property crime. The Home Office said a similar study in America had shown the lowest levels of property crime and violent victimisation for nearly 30 years. Property crime is also falling across the European Union.

Nacro, the crime-reduction charity, said it was "bizarre and wasteful" that at a time of falling crime, people were being jailed in record numbers. Richard Garside, a spokesman for the charity, said: "Less crime should mean less use of prison. Yet rather than benefiting from this historic fall in crime, we have seen prison numbers climb ever higher, and this despite the evidence that prison numbers play a marginal role in reducing crime."