Reducing Crime Rates: Prevention is Preferable to Punishment

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Australian criminal justice policies are frequently out of step with international evidence on what keeps communities safe. 

Each year, new laws are passed to “tackle crime” which are either ineffective or cause several unintended, harmful, consequences.

Why is criminal justice policy in Australia so ineffective?

Short Term Thinking

Law-making to tackle crime is often reactionary and based on short-term thinking. Often, new criminal laws or reforms to bail or parole occur in response to a rare, highly publicised, tragedy rather than peer reviewed research.

Some recent examples of laws implemented in response to a tragedy:

Lawmakers justify these new offences in reference to recent events, but don’t provide any evidence that such laws will prevent future tragedies. It’s an easy strategy to win over public sentiment, but often does very little to improve public safety.

Inaccurate Perceptions of Crime 

Increasing penalties for offences, tightening of bail or parole eligibility or new crimes are often justified on the basis that offending is “out of control”.

These policies rely on the general public having an inaccurate perception of the prevalence of crime in the community. Headlines will often inaccurately depict property or violent crime as being “on the rise” or “spiking”. This is not the case.

In reality, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, the long-term trend of most property and violent crime is downward. The Bureau found that between 1990-2019, incidents most offences have fallen, including:

  • Down 88% for robbery with a firearm and 65% for robbery without a firearm.
  • Down 82% for motor vehicle theft.
  • Down 68% for breaking and entering of a home.
  • Down 54% for murder.

The crimes which have indicated an upward trend include sexual assault (up 184%), partially the result of increased reporting, and assault (up 61%). 

These trends are not merely a quirk of police not catching criminals. Victimisation surveys, which ask individuals about their experiences with crime, reflect identical trends. 

Overall, despite what certain politicians and journalists may be saying, you’ve never been safer from most forms of offending in the state. 

Misunderstanding the Causes of Crime

When the average person thinks of preventing crime, they tend to project themselves into the heads of potential offenders and ask, “what would stop me from offending?”. 

This usually results in a “rational choice” picture of crime prevention, where the threat of serious punishment and resulting public stigma keeps potential criminals from offending. However, this is not how most offenders think.

Criminal offending is strongly associated with poverty, unemployment, low education, difficult childhoods, trauma and problematic drug use. 

Your ‘typical offender’ is a young male with major problems in socialisation, impulse control or anger management often influenced by delinquent peers or poor parenting. Offending is often impulsive, rather than planned, with very little consideration of potential consequences.

Most offenders “age out” of committing crimes, as they developed the capacity to defer gratification and control their behaviour. However, a small group of “career criminals” persist largely as a result of serious cognitive, psychological or substance related problems. 

Around 40% of Australian prison entrants have previously been diagnosed with a mental health condition and two-thirds has used illicit drugs in the previous 12 months. Between 8-20% of prisoners likely meet the criteria of having an intellectual disability.

The NSW Mental Health Commission noted in 2017 that some form of mental health or cognitive impairment amongst defendants facing criminal charges was not some “exception” but the “norm” in the state.

Given the complex reasons behind criminal offending, simple policy solutions which rely on potential offenders making a “rational choice” to change their behaviour are naïve and ineffective. 

Confusing Tough with Effective

“Penal populism” refers to the media driven process where lawmakers compete with each other to propose “tougher” approaches to crime, including longer prison sentences and more “zero tolerance” responses.

This trend in political self-service “tough on crime” policies does very to keep the community safe. Indeed, decades of research have shown that prison is the least effective place to rehabilitate offenders. Contrary to the “tough” rhetoric, several studies have indicated that a stint in prison increases the likelihood that inmates will reoffend.

Prison is a completely artificial environment, prison programs designed to assist rehabilitation are often ineffective as they don’t reflect the pressures and incentives to offend in to the “real world”. 

Compared to community-based corrections or diversion programs, which allow rehabilitation to be undertaken in the community, treatment programs undertaken in prison have little evidence for their effectiveness.

We can’t afford to house all prisoners indefinitely, so the vast majority of offenders are inevitably released without addressing the underlying causes of their offending. For young people placed in juvenile detention, the most likely result of a stint in corrections is a newfound friendship group of disturbed, anti-social peers.

There are evidence-based alternatives to prison, from community corrections to therapeutic court supervised programs like Drug Courts to justice reinvestment schemes which inject funds into areas at risk of crime.

Despite being effective at keeping communities safe, politicians struggle to spin them as “tough” to work to their electoral advantage. As a result, we are entrenched in a culture where the least effective criminal justice policies are the most often proposed. 

The Loudest Voices Are the Least Informed

Australian politics around crime is heavily influenced by media commentators who have no experience engaging offenders or an understanding evidence-based criminal justice policy.

These “shock jocks” base their worldview around the perspective that academics, lawyers, judges, public servants and community workers are ideologically captured and lie about the evidence.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias whereby people with the least knowledge or experience regarding a topic tend to overestimate their expertise in an area. This effect is rampant when it comes to media commentary around crime. 

Journalists receive no formal training in crime statistics, understanding the underlying causes of crime or evidence-based crime prevention, yet are frequently the loudest voices calling for specific criminal justice policies. 

Unlike other specialist areas of knowledge, such as medicine or engineering, tackling crime is often wrongly assumed to be an issue that any member of the public can have an informed opinion on.

This is simply not the case, and the persistence of overly confident media commentators continues to undermine evidence-based criminal justice policy and solutions that would actually keep communities safe.

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Jarryd Bartle

Jarryd Bartle is an Associate Lecturer in Criminology and Justice Studies at RMIT University and a consultant for the Bridge of Hope Innocence Initiative, which investigates claims of wrongful conviction and advocates for systemic reform to protect against miscarriages of justice.

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