Even the government accepts that crime will rise as economic conditions worsen, but is this the only reason for rising crime?
It’s a wonder any of us gets any sleep. It must be terrifying in the world today. Whenever Private Eye puts a spoof Daily Mail headline it its pages, such as “Criminal Yobbo Thugs give you Falling House Price CANCER!” no one laughs. It isn’t funny because it’s too similar to real Daily Mail headlines written for the terminally terrified. Where they are believed, it seems, the world is crawling with criminals with no more desire than to rip people’s hearts out and tear their corpse into indigestible shreds. After all, it is the fear of crime that politicians have sought for so many years to tackle, not the creature itself.
According to the statistics, crime in the UK has been rising steadilly since the mid-1950’s, although it certainly accelerated in the early 1980’s. It should be borne in mind, though, that the rate of reporting crimes has risen in that time, as has the number of crimes it is possible to commit, thanks to the governments (particularly the current one) creating endless new offences year in year out. Real crime, though, has certainly risen. The number of indictable offences per thousand population in 1900 was 2.4 and in 1997 the figure was 89.1. In 1965 6.8 per million people were murdered. By 1997 this had risen to 14.1 per million. Over the last century, the number of police in the UK has risen by over 120,000 to stand at around 150,000.
Yet crime continues to grow, despite all the police. The former Mayor of London, before he was kicked out, Ken Livingstone, made great play over how his increase in the number of the police in the capital, from 25,000 to 31,000 police officers, had reduced crime. He was right that the Tories, for all their talk on being tough on crime, had held back spending on policing levels. In fact, that’s no surprise: policing accounts for around 52 percent of the criminal justice budget, and the Tories are first and foremost cheapskates. Plus, how can you be tough on crime if there isn’t any? For them it is a virtuous political circle: let crime run free, then be tough on it, on the cheap, and then ask for plaudits for being tough on yobbos. That is by the by, though. Despite Ken’s protestations, it wasn’t his police force that cut crime. It was economic conditions.
The “tough on crime” brigade are easy to refute. Some commentators blame the 60’s permissive society and its aftermath of sexual liberation for rising crime. They point to the end of the death penalty and penal reform measures. Yet, the number of prisoners in British cells were growing from the mid-forties onwards, before crime rates themselves began to rise. Now they stand at around 94,000 – and all the prisons are full. They’ve even had to start releasing prisoners early – in the back half of 2007 18,583 prisoners were given early release to relieve overcrowding. A staggering number, that has been replaced. All early release means is more people going through the prison system and being disciplined by it. After all, a great number of released prisoners re-offend and are convicted within two years.
This is all part of the trend. In 1941 there were only around 10,000 prisoners. Even as late as 1991 there were only about 40,000. If prison “worked” surely crime would have been around halved by doubling the prison population? Or at least, more drastically cut than by the modest falls we’ve seen over recent years. Now, the government wants to build extra capacity, three so called Titan Prisons each with a capacity of 7,500, which means they only see the rate of incarceration going up and up.
They have reason to believe that. A leaked draft letter this month told us that Home Office officials were warning ministers that the economic slow down would almost certinly lead to a rise in crime. The letter predicted property crime would rise by 7 percent in 2008 and a further 2 percent in 2009, if the current economic conditions continued. Home Office minister Tony McNulty said the letter was a “statement of the blindingly obvious”, which considering, to their credit, Labour actually formally linked crime rates to economic conditions in their analysis when they first came to power, isn’t a surprising view.
The BBC’s Economics Editor Mark Easton takes issue with whether it is so blindingly obvious that economic downturns promote the increase in crime. As part of this he proposes a different source of crime, citing a report that shows that for every rise of 1 percent in inflation, property crime rises by 0.026 percent; but that is just another name for poverty – when inflation lowers people’s incomes those who can’t easily compensate (for instance through pay rises) will be hard hit.
He is right, though, to note that while the rise in crime generally does not map directly onto the graph of economic up and downs, it does bear a resemblance to the growth in relative poverty. According to the report Poverty, wealth and place in Britain, 1968-2005 from the Joseph Rowntree Foundtion so-called bread line poor, i.e. those who are excluded from normal participation in society due to their lack of wealth, grew to around 27 percent of households in 2005, up from 17 percent in 1980. More strikingly, the non-wealthy/non-poor fell by a dramatic 16 percent in the same period. The proportion of society in the very rich catageory also fell.
The two scales are inverted, the left scale (consumer spending) ascends while the right scale (theft and burglary rates) descends. The match is pretty precise. Whilst it may not be enough to say that one causes another, it is enough to suggest that they are heavily linked. Poverty doesn’t make criminals, it just gives people more chances and incentives to be criminals. Put another way, the decline in social bonds caused by consumerism and rising inequality fuels a dog-eat- dog world which can turn nasty.
Of the 302,000 people sentenced for indictable offences in 2006, 160,100 of them were for property related crimes (theft, criminal damage, etc.). That is, over half of crimes. In 2006/7 some 75 percent of reported crimes were crimes relating to property. Poverty does not just push the creation of crime. It’s well known that the poor are much more likely to be the victims of crime, with the bottom 40 percent of society being way ahead of the top on every measure of crime victimhood. Lone parent and unemployed households are twice as likely to be burgled than the average household; and burglary rates are greater in densely populated and often poor London than in the rest of the south east.
Women in the sex industry are particularly prone to being victims of crime. A report by the Poppy Project, called The Big Brothel found staggering quantities of women working in the sex trade and being treated as little more than shoddy goods by their exploiters. They state that during ‘120 hours of telephone calls, we established the following: at least 1,933 women are currently at work in London’s brothels; ages range from 18 to 55 (with a number of premises offering “very, very young girls”); prices for full sex start at £15, and go up to £250’ The pimps offered two for one deals, discount vouchers, happy hours – the whole marketing gamut as they made between £86 million to £205 million per year with a brothel. This isn’t a normal business transaction though – the women are often beaten and raped. Turned into a commodity themselves, all social bonds utterly severed between them and their clients. In it’s own way, another form of property crime.
There is other evidence for alienation being the motor of crime. A recent report on the BBC revealed that 1 in 11 prisoners in a British gaol is a former member of the armed services, that is, approximately 8,500. The probation officers association NAPO recounts stories of strung out soldiers turning violent after returning from war. That is, those whose social bonds have been deliberately shorn in order to make them into fit killing machines, or whose bonds have been shattered by the experience of killing and conflict, are highly like to fall into crime, and find themselves on the prison scrap heap.
The Home Office report also deals with the rise of policital extremism, another form of expressing alienation. It warns of attacks on immigrants and the growth of racist parties, should Britain slide into recession. Of course, the terrorism obsessed government also considers how this rise in the far-right might lead to more terrorism in retaliation. This should serve as a warning to those who figure that simple economic catastrophism will lead mechanically to socialist revolution. The growth of socialism can only come from the working class consciously deciding that changing the economic system will save them from the woes of crime and violence extremism bred by the current one, and acting on that decision.