Crime is up! Hit the moral panic button

Exploring the outer limits of human evil, we peer into our own dark souls and pleasurably frighten ourselves with our potential for sin
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The Independent Online
It was tempting yesterday morning to break into a broad grin on hearing the annual crime figures - up again! The sound of the Home Secretary wriggling on the radio will have generated many a gleeful smirk amongst all those toilers in the world of crime and punishment driven to despair by his policies. Crime up? Ha ha ha!

What is he to say to the Tory Conference in a fortnight's time, eh? Michael Howard has crowed that his tough policies work - 25 per cent more in prison - because the recorded crime figures dipped for three consecutive years. (Though the far more reliable British Crime Survey continued to show a steady upward climb.) But those who live by lies shall die by lies: the figures were complete bunk and hocum. By the same token, though, yesterday's figures are also bunk and hocum, for we do not know what the real crime rate is, nor even how it fluctuates. Of all government statistics the most mendacious are the police crime figures.

Erratically, they record changes in social and policing habits rather than crimes committed. The great mythical "crime waves" of the Seventies and Eighties coincided with a huge escalation in the number of people with insurance policies. (Those without rarely bother to report thefts.) A rapid rise in telephone ownership made reporting crime more common. Similarly, installing answerphones instead of policemen in rural police stations meant fewer people bothered to report rural crimes. Crimes figures wobble wildly according to police priorities, the law and the courts: have rape and sex crimes really risen, or just the reporting of them? Police trying to improve their clear-up rate reduce their recording of unsolvable crimes, while police bidding for more manpower try to increase them.

But 5.1 million crimes? That is a great many (and there are an estimated three times more unreported). How frightened should we be? Burglary is deeply distressing, but what really alarms us is violence from strangers - yet that is rare and has risen the least. Ninety-three per cent of crime is against property. Only 6 per cent of crime is violent, and only a tiny 0.6 per cent of that is serious. A quarter of serious assaults are domestic, while babies are the most common murder victims. Crime is highly concentrated - many areas having virtually none, while 70 per cent of crimes happen to those who have suffered already that same year.

Fear of crime is higher in Britain than in most of Europe - although "assault with force" rates are among the lowest: Germany and Holland are almost twice as high. Unwarranted fear keeps the old indoors, women out of public transport and makes parents overprotect their children.

But worse still, it grips the nation with moral panic. Whenever some young brute clocks up a hundred crimes, a child is cruelly slaughtered, or a teacher stabbed, the wail goes up, "What is becoming of us?" The smell of fear is in the air.

Keeping things in proportion gets harder as the abuse or willful ignorance of statistics grows. For instance, the number of homicides is almost exactly the same now as it was in 1857, at around 13 per million of the population. The rate has stayed broadly flat since the mid-1970s (and murder is the most reliable statistic). That does not sound very frightening. But if you prefer to be terrified, try this: in 1918 there were only 80,000 recorded indictable offences - now it is five million.

Crime is serious and people are right to be angry, for we all have our anecdotes and there are a multitude of causes and solutions over which we can all argue. Some might cry terminal sin, single parents or the like. I would point to European figures showing how theft and burglary rates track the graph of boom and bust, going up and down with unemployment.

For crime is the flip side of mass prosperity in a grossly unequal society. Believers in our moral decline point out that in the depressed but morally better 1930s there was little theft. But that comparison makes no sense: then a huge homogenous poor working class had nothing - nothing to envy and nothing to steal. Now there is virtually no working class, only a deprived underclass and a huge well-off class parading its Nike trainers and designer label chinos in front of the noses of the wretched young have-nothings.

Although crime is only a small part of life, we have always been disproportionately fascinated with it - in literature, films, television, and gruesome cases that sell newspapers. Exploring the outer limits of human evil, we peer into our own dark souls and pleasurably frighten ourselves with our potential for sin. As a society, casting out transgressors defines ourselves and our values.

But that fascination is starting to run riot. Reasonable concern is turning into a moral panic that obscures any real understanding of the society we live in - largely prosperous, happy, peaceful and better educated than ever - but with some grave and intractable problems: poverty, unemployment, underachievement and, yes, crime. To solve them we need to study what works, how to prevent the worst and encourage the best - not wallow in a morass of despair. Moral hysteria breeds paralysis or, worse, it generates the sort of useless punitive remedies prescribed by Michael Howard to please the frightened crowds.

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