Crime – it’s not the shocker you thought, „Warsaw Business Journal”, 02.12.2002

By | 2 grudnia 2002

Crime – it’s not the shocker you thought

Statistics may mislead, but it’s still fine for zero tolerance

Crime is a popular subject. The police statistics tell us about increased crime, and many of us treat this matter as something normal, just the same as we have gotten used to inflation. Meanwhile, crime is not a phenomenon which directly depends on economic growth. There are countries which have noted reduced crime in the last few years, such as the United States. However, we first have to explain how we measure crime. Police statistics are quite rich in different categories (homicide, assault and break-ins); nevertheless, they have many faults. For a start, not all crimes are being reported to the police. Second, not all reports are being investigated by the police. Third, the police statistics aren’t reliable enough for international comparisons because crime is defined differently in every country.

If we suspect that not all crimes are being reported, deeper research is required. An example is the International Crime Victims Survey (ICVS), which is based on using the same method of statistical collection everywhere. It relies on asking people if they have been victims of crime. The data collected in this way does not, therefore, depend on laws that differ in every country. This research is best when comparing the international statistics. It shows the dangers which exist in 17 countries based on the 11 crimes – Poland is somewhere in the middle. This means that the risk of crime is medium. It’s worth recalling that every fourth Polish citizen was a crime victim in 1999 (this is the last year for which information is available). Thus, crime is a day-to-day phenomenon, and we can’t really say that this happens only in the bad neighbourhoods or in specific environments. Living in a big city, being young, often out and about, increases the risk of mugging.

The same graph groups the crimes in different categories depending on levels of danger: robberies, rape or breaking into cars. But the most disturbing fact is the number of robberies. These statistics show that in Poland, unfortunately, the risk of getting robbed or mugged is one of the highest. However, crimes such as rape are rare. I have mentioned before that not all crimes are being reported, to the police. Not all meaning how many? While doing the ICVS research this question was also asked.

In Poland, only 40% of crimes are reported. Thus, the police data consists of only part of all crimes. Why don’t people report crimes? The reasons are that they think that the case is not important or that the police will not pursue it enthusiastically, on the grounds they will be unable to apprehend the suspect. Moreover, police do not want to register all reported crimes because this means a lot of paperwork, while some crimes are simply unsolveable; thus, there is no point in bothering with them. By comparing the number of reported crimes with those crimes that have been registered by police, we can say that police officials have failed to register half of all reported crimes. It is worth adding that such instances are not confined to Poland. However, in Western Europe most of the reported crimes are properly registered.

The media insist frequently that crime has increased. However, this is not the case when we take a look at the ICVS report. I think this is good material in an open discussion for our next budget. In Poland, the research done on the level of crimes committed started in 1992. From then on, it can be said that the crime rate has stabilised, and there has not been a significant increase since. It would thus seem that there are no reasons to worry, since the crime rate is not increasing and the efficiency of the police force is improving.

But, as shown by the experiences of other countries, crime does not in any case always have to increase; there are also ways to reduce it. The United States is the best known example of that. Until the beginning of the 1980s, the crime rate in the U.S. rose rapidly. However, in the beginning of the 1990s, the trend began to reverse. What is significant is that the decrease also pertained to the most violent crimes, incidences of which began to fall in the mid-1990s. This reduction is commonly associated with a tighter criminal policy, executed through harsh sentences particularly for repeated felons. This was achieved by issuing guidelines for the judges as well as the famous “three strikes and you’re out” policy, together with the “zero tolerance” changes in police tactics used by the city of New York and the New York Police Department chief, William Bratton.

Even though there are still controversies surrounding the reasons for the decrease, there is no doubting the significance of the new tough stance on crime. Harsher sentencing for specific groups of hardened criminals is connected with a departure from the concept of resocialising. According to data, a narrow group, 5% of all criminals, is responsible for more than half of the entire number of crimes. Isolating such repeated offenders would thus represent an important gain for society. There are few illusions left with regard to resocialising persistent offenders, and only the co-operative treatment of addictions is successful. Since resocialising does not bring any effects, keeping felons in prison has only two functions: to prevent and to isolate.

The change of police operational tactics has started with the „broken windows” theory, that is the observation that the police’s oblivion to minor law violations encourages an escalation of law violations and demoralises the police as well as society. The police cannot function or earn respect as a preventive force that performs its task and disappears. On the contrary, the police must be intimately connected with the local society, constitute an integral part of it and assure that law and order will be a priority at every level. The operational tactic introduced by NYPD chief William Bratton was based on this “broken windows” theory and brought with it tremendous success in terms of crime reduction, including a two-digit decrease in the most serious crimes, such as homicide, rape and assault. Bratton’s recent visit to Poland, which was organised by the „Ius et Lex” Foundation, offers hope that police tactics will change in Poland as well.

This tightening of the crime deterrence policy leads to an increase in incarcerations. That is particularly visible in the United States, but the numbers of prisoners are also increasing in Poland. It is worth noting that the number of inmates constantly remains lower than in most years before 1989, while the number of crimes registered by the police is more than twice as high since 1989. Although no far-reaching conclusions should be drawn from a simple statistical comparison, mainly due to faults in police statistics, it is clear that we should not be over-disturbed by the present number of inmates, since the total is decidedly lower than 15 years ago. Of course, prisons cost; that is why the society should not ignore the issue of the number of inmates, but it is worth considering what we would gain in return for lower costs.

This line of thinking is the cause of the increasingly influential economic approach to looking at crime. There is no doubt that the costs generated by crime are of different weight, loss of health versus a broken door lock. They are also characterised by a different period and scale of influence. Using financial values, we can bring different costs to a common denominator, which would ultimately give us a basis for an optimal criminal policy, including a projected number of inmates. American research demonstrates that society as a whole will benefit from the continuation of a harsh crime policy. Of course, a turning point would be reached and the society would demand a decrease in justice system expenses, the effect of which would be an increase in crime. The trend would continue until society could agree that the crime rate was too high again. There is no ultimate deterrent. Crime is a phenomenon we will never be able to fight and which will always accompany us.

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