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Crime in The West
Jul 1, 1993

Since the Second World War there has been, in the countries of Western Europe and in the USA, an extraordinary increase in the material prosperity of all classes, along with improvements in health care, education, social security and other benefits. In spite of that, crime figures have rocketed in these countries over the same period. Why?

Western sociologists and criminologists have tried to explain away the gloomy statistics by claiming that the level of crime is much as it was–only the level of reporting of crime has gone up because, among other things, people have telephones! Or they have suggested that because people own more things (more goods in the house, more cars, etc), there is more opportunity to commit crime. And some have tried, without any objective proof, to accuse particular ethnic groups, especially blacks, of criminal tendencies. In the public imagination blacks are associated with mugging, violent theft, burglary, and all other sorts of crime. The implication of this view is that, somehow, non-black Westerners are, by nature, disinclined to commit crime!

Whatever the explanation for it, the crime figures are evidence of a problem that has to be tackled. The two main options address the problem preventatively or correctively. Preventive measures consist of increased security–better doors and windows, more locks and bolts, alarms, video surveillance, and the like. Such measures failed to address the crime figures because the crime was displaced to easier targets–to, for example, the houses of the poor who could neither afford the increased security nor move to ‘safe’ areas of town. On the corrective side, the policy (usually associated with ‘conservatives’)– tougher policing tactics, harsher sentencing, short, sharp shock treatment for young offenders–didn’t work either. Tough, military-style policing in certain urban areas provoked riots, looting, racial conflict and massively expensive disorder, and brought the police into disrepute. Neither longer sentences nor short, sharp shook treatments affected rates of recidivism: 60% of criminals still went back to a life of crime. New prison buildings had to be built at great cost, adding to the already considerable cost of keeping criminals locked up–an average of 2000 per individual per month.

Unable to resolve the problem, governments hastily adopted the ‘nothing works’ principle and handed over some of its responsibilities to local councils. Long sentencing and tough policing had to be abolished due to unpopularity and costs. New sentencing measures, probation and community policing were implemented. However, crime figures have continued to rise. The dilemma remains: long sentences mean unsustainable costs of running overcrowded prison services with a 60% recidivism rate; short or no custodial sentences mean letting the criminals onto the streets albeit with reduced opportunities–the poor being vulnerable whereas the rich buy security and/or insurance. 

The approaches so far tried are bound to fail because they do not attempt to identify the causes of criminality in a way commensurate with the complexity of the problem. They do not identify all the individual factors which, acting together, generate crime. The responses to crime have been simplistic: if the criminals were unemployed, try to get them work; if they were persistent offenders, lock them up; if some people were particularly vulnerable to crime, counsel them to get better security. But neither crime nor criminals act for motives as simple as that. If a criminal mind really wants to commit crime, giving the person a job or money may not be dissuasive. Consider the case of Robert Maxwell who was immensely wealthy but nevertheless stole his own employees’ pensions, or of the political dictators who have robbed their own people of millions each year. If poverty were the sufficient reason for crime, there would not be crimes like tax evasion, bribery, fraud, racketeering, price fixing, etc., which are usually done by the well-off. In fact none of the economic classes (nor any of the ethnic groups) in a society can be singled out as more liable to commit crime.

Existing theories do not adequately address the key questions: why some people commit crime whereas others, in very similar situations, do not; why patterns of crime differ in similar areas; why in the same family one member becomes a criminal but the others do not, or the other way round; and, finally, why some individuals, households, or businesses are more likely to be victims than others.

Conventional approaches look for answers to these questions dissuasire separately but none has ever tried to address them all together. The discipline of criminology is in a severe crisis as regards any competence to explain the causes of the phenomena it offers to deal with. Sadly, since Western society finds it very difficult to question its fundamental structures, it is most unlikely that Western criminologists will be persuaded to ask the right questions in the right way. Success and happiness, in modern Western societies, are defined in terms of individual buying power. Material expectations are constantly being increased with the majority of people having very little opportunity to catch up with them. At the same time, the system lacks the authority of moral norms–normlesness is the norm, individuals being encouraged to define their own norms as they go along. Offenders often say, for example, that property is insured anyway so there is no harm in stealing it. Meanwhile, the sense of insecurity and isolation deepens: in some urban areas, people do not even feel safe in their own homes.

The motivations to crime are diverse and complex. Some individuals, ambitious for success, are nevertheless industrious and law-abiding, others seek illegal short-cuts. Some may find no legal route to change their economic condition and accept it, others do not. And still others may not be ambitious at all and simply conform to the circumstances in which they find themselves. The question, here, is what factors lead particular individuals into several different behavior patterns. The answer is bound to be no less complex than in the case of disease where the susceptibility of a particular individual has many possible causes, not one.

Many conventional crime theories focus on a single cause and generalize the explanation to crime as such. Biologists may identify genetic defects in some criminals then deduce that all criminals are genetically defective (e.g. Lombrosso). But if human actions were all determined by our genes we would be like robots–and we are not. Besides, the latest researches show that brain activities are not controlled by genes. Or psychologists may identify a psychological disturbance among some members of the criminal population and, instead of localizing the results, claim that all criminals must be psychologically disturbed (e.g. Freud). Or sociologists may observe that the children of broken or ‘problem’ families are over-represented amongst criminals and infer a causal connection between poor family background and crime.

As against these approaches, it is essential to acknowledge the multiplicity of causes of crime and to differentiate offender types. A more credible analysis of causes must try to explain differentials in crime rates in different areas and the process by which specific individuals acquire criminal attitudes and/or behavior. The explanation must combine more than one factor on the sociological or psychological side of the question. It must, first, put the person in the centre of the investigation and then ask: How do people become the kind of individuals who commit crimes? What is it about the structure of a social system that determines the kinds of criminal acts that occur in the system and their distribution? What deters people from crime?

The individual must be placed at the centre of the investigation because only individualist theories can explain different patterns of crime in similar conditions. Class or social group theories cannot explain the only criminals in a family, given that all family members are exposed to the same economic, social or environmental conditions. Burglars are statistically expected to be young, school drop-outs and unemployed, but it is evident that not all the unemployed nor all school drop-outs commit crimes. That does not mean that social conditions are irrelevant, only that they are not deterministic. Social conditions of course do affect people and may even predispose some individuals towards crime. However, it remains true that most individual offenders choose to do what they do.

Having accepted that crime is not a product of single causes like poverty or social deprivation but of a complex of causes, any solution we seek must not rely on either preventative locks and bolts or corrective sentences in prison, but take a long term view. The long term solution is to bring up individuals with clear values of what is good and evil, as concerned for others as for themselves; who do not measure happiness in terms of buying power. At the same time we need a social environment in which the have-nots are not alienated from the haves, but all feel as if they belong together and are all cared for and protected by all. Cooperativeness and solidarity must replace individualism and competitiveness at the expense of others. If not, we encourage the cynicism of ‘might is right’, of crime as the clever individuals way of punishing the fool for being foolish.

The intensity and extent of crime in Western societies is an indicator that something is seriously wrong with them. There ought, in conscience, to be no evasion of the responsibility to question the principles and directions on which they are run.