In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a general political perception that the ‘fight against crime’ was not only being lost, but that attempts to explain and solve offending behaviours were largely ineffective. The best that could be done was to develop ways that limited the impact of crime on communities and this led to a range of policies aimed at preventing crime, developed under the umbrella of New Right approaches to reflect a more conservative approach to dealing with crime. These approaches involved crime-reduction polices that drew on ecologicalideas about people’s relationship to their immediate environment – specifically in terms of their impact on encouraging or discouraging deviant behaviour.
Indicative of this general perspective, Clarke (1980) argues that crime theory should focus on a realistic approach to crime prevention and management, rather than search for the ‘causes of crime’. He argues that criminal behaviour takes many forms – property theft, for example, is very different from rape – and it makes little sense to assume they have similar causes or outcomes. However, the majority of crimes had two important characteristics that made them amenable to prevention: first, the majority are opportunistic, and second, crime is territorial.
- Opportunistic crime is the outcome of what Clarke terms, ‘the immediate choices and decisions made by the offender’. In other words, most crime is unplanned and carried out ‘on the spur of the moment’; if an opportunity occurs (a purse left unattended, for example) an offender may be tempted if the chances of being detected are less than the likely benefits. This reflects what Right Realists call a cost / benefit analysis of crime.
Analysis of Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) data for 2020 suggests that opportunistic crimes are not restricted to relatively small-scale thefts. Around 50% of all home burglaries, for example, were spur-of-the-moment decisions by the perpetrators as they responded to favourable opportunities to commit a crime that hadn’t necessarily planned or prepared to commit.
- Territorial crime is, Wiles and Costello (2000) argue, generally local to the offender. Their research showed the ‘average distance travelled to commit domestic burglary was 1.8 miles’, which confirmed Forrester et al’s (1988) research into patterns of burglary in Rochdale.
While this “average” does, of course, hide wide individual behaviour discrepancies – some burglars, for example, target properties well outside this average – recent CSEW (2020) data has shown that around 50% of burglars knew their victims.
Territorialism is important for crime prevention and control since offences committed outside the offender’s local area are mainly related, as Wiles and Costello argue, to opportunities presenting themselves ‘during normal routines’, rather than being consciously planned (a ‘routine activity theory’ of crime). If measures are taken to reduce opportunities for crime in a particular area, crime rates will fall. The denial of opportunity, allied to territoriality, means the majority of crimes will not be displacedto other areas (although there are exceptions – activities like drug smuggling and prostitution, for example, are sensitive to displacement).
These ideas led to a range of crime prevention strategies, designed to make crime more difficult, less attractive and more costly for the potential offender, based around changes to the cultural and physical environments.
Strategies here focused on:
- denying opportunities to potential offenders
- more effective territorial controls – advertising campaigns focused on ways to make people more aware of criminal opportunities (‘Look Out – there’s a thief about’) and how to deny opportunities by protecting their property (‘Lock It or Lose It’).
Strategies designed to increase community-based surveillance included:
- promoting ‘informal-policing’ (such as Neighbourhood Watch)
- information gathering – closer relations between the police and the community (Crimestoppers provides rewards for informing on offenders)
- community support officers – this scheme, introduced in the 1990s, was designed to help the police develop community linkages, although Gilling (1999) has questioned their effectiveness in this role.
Controlling crime through the management of physical space is a significant ecological strategy, an example of which includes Newman’s (1996) concept of defensible space – ‘structuring the physical layout of communities to allow residents to control the areas around their homes’ using a mix of ‘real and symbolic barriers, strongly defined areas of influence and improved opportunities for surveillance’.
‘Alleygate’ projects, for example, limit access to ‘outsiders’ on housing estates – locked gates, to which only residents have the keys, stop potential offenders gaining access to houses and making their escape through a maze of alleys. CCTV surveillance has also become a familiar sight in many towns, cities and individual properties.
Similarly, Coleman (1985) criticises the replacement of the ‘traditional street of houses-with-gardens’, which contained owned and defensible space, by ‘estates of flats’ where vast areas were left undefended through a lack of community ownership: no one, for example, took responsibility for policing corridors and non-residents could move freely and anonymously around and through tower blocks.
Power and Tunstall’s (1995) longitudinal study of ‘twenty of the most unpopular council estates in the country’ provides significant empirical evidence to support New Right approaches in that they found changes to the physical environment, such as the creation of defensible space and improved street lighting, reduced many forms of offending. Similarly, Town (2001) suggests measures such as CCTV surveillance do not result in offenders moving their activities to areas without such measures (crime displacement).
Fear of crime
However, Osborn and Shaftoe (1995) believe the evidence for crime reduction is not clear cut; they argue that physical measures reduce the fear of crime rather than crime itself. Reductions in crime are a statistical artefact produced by people ‘feeling safer’, defining less behaviour as criminal and therefore reporting fewer crimes. They conclude that policy interventions in ‘traditional areas of concern’ – relieving poverty, reducing inequality and supporting family life – provide better long-term solutions to crime reduction.
A further criticism of cultural strategies such as criminal profiling – where the police build-up pictures of typical criminals – is that they result in some groups being targeted as ‘potential criminals’. The police discover more crime among the target groups, which confirms their initial profiling and feeds into continued profiling to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Right realism offers a theoretical explanation for offending largely missing from New Right approaches, based on three fundamental assumptions:
1. Criminal behaviour follows a developmental process
Minor disorders, such as ‘broken windows’ allowed to go unprotected and unrepaired, lead to major disorder and criminality. As Wilson and Kelling (1982) argue, ‘one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing’.
2. Crime is a problem of order
Unchecked criminality leads to disorder within a community, which, in turn, feeds into the development of more and greater criminality. As Kleiman (2000) argues, where people fear crime they take steps to avoid it, to the detriment of community life; the streets, for example, become the preserve of lawbreakers. Establishing order, therefore, breaks this ‘cycle of disorder’ and reduces both crime and the fear of crime.
3. People make rational choices
This translates into a ‘cost/benefit’ explanation of offending. Potential offenders rationally weigh the likely benefits of crime, in terms of money and status, for example, against likely costs, such as being caught and punished. Possible punishments, however severe, are not in themselves deterrents since no one commits a crime believing they are going to be caught.
Wilson (1983) notes that individuals don’t always act rationally, in their own best interests, because they may have no real idea about the chances of being arrested for a particular crime. Rational choice operates at a general level, where beliefs are propagated through the media, community, family and peer group – sources that, Wilson suggests, ‘supply a crudely accurate estimate of the current risks of arrest, prosecution, and sentencing’. They are also likely to have a good working knowledge of situational variables, such as the best places and times to commit crimes with the least possible risks.
Wiles and Costello (2000) provide empirical support for this idea when they note that convicted burglars gave three main reasons for their choice of target:
- poor security
- unoccupied premises
- somewhere isolated/quiet
For Wilson, crime control involves increasing the risk for offenders in order to raise the costs of crime to outweigh any possible benefits. If a community deploys highly visible measures to deter crime it makes offenders think rationally about the general risk of being caught.
One criticism of this approach involves questioning the developmental link between minor and major disorder on the basis that it involves a form of exception fallacy – the idea that something characteristic of an individual can be extrapolated to all similar individuals. Someone who allows their room to accumulate litter will find this rapidly escalates from a minor problem of tidiness to a major problem of infestation – an example of minor disorder causing major disorder.
We cannot, however, simply extrapolate this principle from the individual to a community because, for example, communities contain people who help to prevent disorder (such as the police). Communities may experience low-level disorder, such as teenagers hanging around the streets without this ever developing into major disorder.
Crime and disorder
Further criticism involves questioning the right realist argument that the direction of causality is from crime to disorder. If low-level crime goes unchecked a neighbourhood declines into disorder: property prices fall, the middle classes move away, criminals move in and so forth. Removing crime, therefore, removes the cause of disorder.
Lea (2007) however suggests this causality is actually reversed: disorder creates crime. There is more crime in working-class areas not because it is allowed to go unchecked but because crime is a consequence of disorderly social relationships, such as unemployment and single-parenthood, caused by inequality. Remove the causes of disorder and you remove the causes of crime. This interpretation also solves a problem not adequately explained by right realism, namely why people engage in crime in the first place.