Lessons from the UK on how to reduce crime

From Ed West, writing in the UK Telegraph.


A year after the riots, things are looking up in London. As the Economist reported last week, gun crime is down considerably, while overall crime continues to fall, and homicide is down to its lowest level since the early 1980s.

In fact Britain is following the example of the United States, where crime rose sharply from the 1960s to the early 1990s, when it began to fall almost as steadily. The US crime explosion had several causes, but the most prominent was the huge drop in the average length of sentences in the mid-1960s, largely as a result of political fashion. That trend was already reversed by the 1980s, but it took a while before Americans began to see that handing out tough sentences was effective – even at the cost of incarcerating one per cent of the population.

Today even Guardian writers accept that this “contentious” policy reduces crime, although for many years those advocating it were called everything under the sun. The most prominent of those advocates was the late James Q Wilson,who before he died wrote about the fall in crime he had helped to bring about:

One obvious answer is that many more people are in prison than in the past. Experts differ on the size of the effect, but I think that William Spelman and Steven Levitt have it about right in believing that greater incarceration can explain about one-quarter or more of the crime decline. Yes, many thoughtful observers think that we put too many offenders in prison for too long. For some criminals, such as low-level drug dealers and former inmates returned to prison for parole violations, that may be so. But it’s true nevertheless that when prisoners are kept off the street, they can attack only one another, not you or your family.

As Wilson pointed out, there are many other factors, such as a more competent and technically sophisticated police force, while rehabilitation programmes also make a difference (although longer stretches also make these more effective, since prisoners serving short sentences are out on the streets before they have finished their education). But prison still works pretty effectively.

So in London, and across Britain, crime is falling largely because our prison population has topped 86,000; a terrible waste for those inside, but better that their lives are wasted than those of their victims on the outside. And the benefits are considerable.

This dovetails nicely with Stephen Harper’s tough-on-crime measures.


And while the overall homicide rate was up seven per cent — there were 598 homicides in Canada in 2011, 44 more than the previous year — the number in Ontario actually hit record lows.

Altogether, police services reported nearly 2 million incidents last year, about 110,000 fewer than in 2010, the agency reported.

The decline in the crime rate was driven mostly by decreases in property offences, mischief, break-ins and car theft. But the severity of crime index — a tool used to measure the extent of serious crime in Canada — also declined by six per cent.

“Overall, this marked the eighth consecutive decrease in Canada’s crime rate,” the study said. “Since peaking in 1991, the crime rate has generally been decreasing, and is now at its lowest point since 1972.”

Not surprisingly, the Conservatives took credit for the decline Tuesday, attributing falling crime rates over the last four decades to the government’s tough-on-crime agenda, which is just six years old.

“These statistics show that our tough on crime measures are starting to work. Our government is stopping the revolving door of the criminal justice system,” said Julie Carmichael, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

“The fact of the matter is that when the bad guys are kept in jail longer, they are not out committing crimes and the crime rate will decrease. However, there is still more work to do.”

The Democrats will never embrace measures like this here at home, even though they work. They are soft on crime.

4 thoughts on “Lessons from the UK on how to reduce crime”

  1. Interesting article but I think the point of the article on decreasing crime rates in Canada can’t be chalked up to getting tough on crime. I want to know why the crime rate has been going down since 1991 before the conservatives implemented their tough on crime policies. Nonetheless, I don’t doubt that their policies helped. I’ve never understood the argent that if you treat criminals nice they’ll be nice.


  2. I think you need to watch/read freakonomics – there’s a strong statistical correlation with banning abortion and rising crime rates…which probably explains why the european communist countries had to get real tough on crime. It’s interesting though that you’re finally starting to agree that there are some things the communists did right…


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