Five reasons for a life of less crime

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CRIME. We all worry about it. President Bill Clinton used his State of the Union address this week to pledge an attack on it. Here in Britain both political parties realise that they must respond to public fears of it. The fear in America is that the very fabric of society is under siege. The fear here, where crime is lower, is that we might go down the American route.

Yet it is perfectly possible - indeed highly probable - that in Britain at least we are at one of those great turning points that occur every couple of generations: that crime, having risen inexorably since the Fifties, is now about to start a long period of decline, similar to the period from the 1830s onwards through most of the last century. Here are five reasons why this might be so.

The first is demography. Most crime is committed by young men. In 1986 there were more than 2.4 million men aged 20 to 24 in the UK, a figure which had risen from less than 2 million in 1976. This figure is now falling fast. By 1991 it was less than 2.3 million and it is projected to fall to just over 1.9 million by 1996 and slightly above 1.8 million by 2001. This is a big swing: 1.8 million will have to work roughly one-third harder to commit as many offences as 2.4 million did in the mid- Eighties.

That is a tall order. Even if these young men are even more criminally inclined than the mid-Eighties batch, and commit 10 or 15 per cent more offences per person, the crime rate will still come down.

Next, there is the trend in unemployment. Of course some of the most spectacular crimes, giant frauds for example, are committed by people in work. But there is undoubtedly some relationship between unemployment and crime, if only because people working 40 hours a week have 40 fewer hours to do anything else. The likely trend of unemployment deserves a column itself, but the demographic change ought to reduce unemployment among the young.

In any case, looked at from a long historical viewpoint the high unemployment rates of the Eighties throughout Europe are unusual. The very low rates of the Fifties are also unusual, but a return to the 5 to 8 per cent range by the end of this decade is quite possible.

Third: technology. We are only just beginning to realise the full implications of devices such as the video camera, which could be as important in cutting crime as the invention of street lighting in the last century. The pioneering work here has been done in the Scottish town of Airdrie, which introduced cameras in November 1992. A dramatic drop in crime resulted. Since then a number of cities and towns have introduced surveillance schemes or are about to. A set of cameras in Bournemouth cut vandalism to such an extent that the system paid for itself in little more than a year. The biggest such experiment is in Glasgow, and if that achieves similar results, it will show that video cameras are as effective in giant cities as in small and medium-sized ones.

Naturally there are many other technologies that will help further: technologies as varied as a national DNA register, car immobilisers and the etching of photos on credit cards. But video cameras are the big success story of the past couple of years.

Fourth: policing. It is monstrously unfair to say so, but during the Eighties the police seemed almost to boast about rising crime. They behaved like a data collection agency; the more crime they could record, the more they needed more people, higher pay and faster cars to fight it. Instead of being ashamed of their failure, they blustered on about failures of society.

It is hard to generalise, but attitudes really seem to have changed. In some specific areas, like football matches, policing has visibly improved. My colleagues on the sports desk point out that the hooting and singing by some fans during the one-minute silence for Sir Matt Busby seemed shocking because it contrasted with generally better behaviour at football matches in recent years. This they attributed not to any change in the fans but in the policing of them. Pressure on the police is probably improving performance in other areas too.

Finally: change in social attitudes, in culture, in what we all expect of people. It is hard to pin this down, but something is clearly happening. People are not only more worried; they are more angry and they are becoming more organised. In Scotland, where crime fell quite sharply last year and clear-up rates have risen, the shift is attributed by police to a number of factors, including neighbourhood watch schemes and generally better co-operation with the public.

Individually, these five points might not be sufficient to turn round what has been a steady and alarming rise in crime. There are offsetting negative forces that I have not discussed, including the greater availability of firearms which are now flooding out of the old Soviet empire; greater freedom of movement within Europe and between Britain and the rest of the world; probably still rising levels of drug abuse; the danger that better job prospects for young qualified people will leave the unqualified even more excluded and alienated.

But taken together, the five factors cutting crime ought to have greater impact than each would have individually. Once it is clear that crime really is coming down, the word gets around and a virtuous circle is established. Police and public become more confident; detection rates rise; it becomes harder to dispose of stolen goods, so the returns fall. The risk-reward ratio is thus tilted against the aspiring criminal, and crime simply becomes an unattractive proposition.

All this, please note, has nothing to do with politicians and nothing to do with the law.

The reaction of most people to this argument would probably be that, if it proves true, it should be warmly welcomed: crime is bad. It may sound odd, then, to end with a warning.

There will be costs to falling crime. The sort of changes outlined above will involve some restriction of individual liberties. It is not just that we will have to become used to being watched as we shop, or simply walk up the street. We may, a generation from now, find ourselves in a more censorious society: one which imposes greater social control on our behaviour and which becomes much more hostile to people who do not conform to what other people regard as normal and proper. Our society may become safer, but it may also become less exuberant, less interesting, and in some senses, less free.