Tough on the philosophy of crime

In Britain as in New York, many offences are getting rarer. Are we rediscovering civic behaviour?
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The latest British crime figures may be only half-encouraging, but the message of the latest US ones is unambiguous: crime is coming down. Since social trends in the US have oftenled the rest of the developed world, it is perfectly possible thatwe could be in the early stages of a long downward movement in crime levels, reversing thesharp rises since the Fifties.

To say that is to make an act of faith. We tend to think of crime as something which inexorably rises, but there have been long periods of history when crime has fallen. The trouble is that the evidence in the UK is still thin, and the fall in crime in the US is from vastly higher levels than anything we can conceive of here.

Some numbers, first here. Crimes in England and Wales have fallen for the past 18 months and last year were 5 per cent down on 1983. Some much- publicised forms of crime fell more sharply: burglary was down by more than 8 per cent and vehicle crime by nearly 10 per cent. There is, however, some concern that the rate of decline slowed towards the end of last year, which may indicate that the improvement is tailing off, and perhaps greater concern that violent crimes continue to rise. The number of murders, though still a relatively rare crime, also climbed: from 670 to 727, though that was partly the result of the discovery of the Gloucesterbodies and the cinema fire in London.

Now the United States. Crime climbed to a peak in 1980, fell slightly through to 1985, then rose until 1991, almost reaching its previoushigh. Sincethen there has been a steady improvement. Take New York, where thedecrease has been particularly evident. Last year robberies fell by 15 per cent; the number of people shot was "only" 5,861, also down 15 per cent. Rape, assault, burglary and car theft also fell, but the most dramatic dropof all was in murders, with a 19 per cent decline to 1,561.

The striking thing about this last figure is the utterly different level of murders: more than twice as many people killed in New York in a good year as in the whole of England and Wales in a poor one. But the incidence of other forms of crime is much closer, and thefts of cars are higher here. The greatest parallel, though, is in the explanation the police on both side of the Atlantic give for thedecrease: that they have improved security and targeted certain types of crime which they feel intrude on people's quality of life. In Britain,burglary and car theft are the two best examples; in New York, subway crime, which has been halved since 1990.

One has to be careful of all crime figures, particularly those based on reported offences, for they may represent changes in the collection of data. But there does seem to be enough evidence of a fall to make the proposition of a new downward trend a starter. It may turn out to be wrong, but it is not absurd.

There are, I think, at least four reasons why this should be so, two minor, two major.

The less important are demography and economic change. Most crimes are committed by young men, so the fall in the birth rate which took place between 1965 and 1975 in every developed country ought now to be cutting crime rates. It is a little discouraging that crime has not already fallen further, but at least there is no surge in the number of young people reaching their twenties in the foreseeable future, as there was in the Eighties.

Economic change should also help. There is a clear link between crime and economic opportunity, and awareness throughout the developed world that unemployment levels are unacceptably high should start to lead to a re- balancing of policy to attack that.There does seem to be some evidence that the long-term trend of unemployment (except in continental Europe) may now be down. The US made considerable (and often unsung) progress in creating jobs in the Eighties, with the result that of the large and medium-sized economies only Japan, Switzerland and Norway have lower unemployment. Even in Britainthe early Nineties peak was slightly lower than the middle Eighties one.

But I think the other two forces are much more important: technology and social attitudes.

The technology that will cut general levels of crime is not so much the glitzy advances such as the national DNA register launched this week. In the long term that may become very important in helping to solve serious crime, but in the short term devices such as the video camera are much more useful. Video surveillance is already responsible for dramatic declines in street crime in areas where it has been installed. There are a host of other simple technologies including car tracking, laser-encrypted credit cards and protective screens in banks and building societies which also achieve remarkable results.

There is a cost in applying such technology, both in terms of money and in some instances civil liberties, but if society is prepared to pay that price there is little doubt that crime can be cut. As the age structure of societies becomes older, it may well be thatvoters will be more prepared to pay the costs of applying such technologies and to accept the restriction of liberties which will result.

Meanwhile there is plenty of progress to be made simply by better policing. The Audit Commission report on British police forces, published yesterday, shows that the best forces solve twice as many crimes as the worst. Since the probability of being caught is a clear deterrent to crime, bringing the worst forces some way towards the best would by itself cut crime dramatically.

No one should underrate the implications of technology, particularly when coupled with good policing: the creation of the police as we now know them was, with street lighting, one of the main reasons why crime fell in Britain between the 1840s and the First World War. But the most important change of all would be a shift in attitudes to crime: a rediscovery of what might be called civic behaviour.

To say that is to risk stepping into the debate on the possibility and wisdom of seeking to rebuild a moral code of behaviour: what we might call "Victorian values" and Americans would dub "family values". It is too big a subject to tackle here, except to note that politicians on both sides of the Atlantic and both sides of the political divide are now talking in moral tones. This reflects not just what they perceivevoters wish to hear but also a change in the state of Anglo-American philosophy. This was summed upby Martha Nussbaum, the liberal American philosopher, as follows:

"Anglo-American philosophy is turning from an ethics based on enlightenment ideals of universality to an ethics based on tradition and particularity; from an ethics based on principle to an ethics based on virtue; ... from an ethics based on the isolated individual to an ethics based on affiliation and care." *

It may seem odd to try to explain the antics of joyriders in terms of philosophy, but if the notion of the basis of human rights and duties changes, then ultimately behaviour will change too.

* Martha Nussbaum, `Virtue Revived', TLS, 3 July, 1992, quoted in `The De-moralisation of Society', Gertrude Himmelfarb, IEA, 1995.