The Price of Punishment
By Bernard LaganMarch 14, 2012
Researchers have discovered a hidden gem thrown up by Australia's economic boom. Our good times are driving down crime, amazing the experts!
You've heard all about Australia's boom times. Of heady city house prices. About the ready money in the mining towns. Of the jobs that go begging because there are so many to choose from. About the dazzlingly rich resource billionaires.
And you wonder, in this two-speed economy, how you didn't end up on the wrong side of the track.
Well, here's one way you didn't: you're safer. Your home is safer. Your kids are safer. Your possessions are safer. Your life is safer.
Good economic times, it seems from new Australian research, are far more effective in stemming criminal behaviour than tossing more into the $11.5 billion pile - about what the Dutch pay annually for defence - that Australia spends each year on law and order.
And the same research has uncovered the big lie which those politicians, ever keen to thump their tough-on-crime mantras, have long sold as gospel: that tougher sentences will reduce crime. They won't. And adding extra jail time for common, though serious offences - including robbery, house-breaking, car theft and violence (including murder) - will, mostly, serve only to push up Australia's annual $2.2 billion spending on the prison system.
The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research — a state government entity which has built a reputation for fiercely independent research that often challenges law-and-order orthodoxy — has finished its long-run research project into the effect of arrest and imprisonment on crime rates.
It's a particularly apt research project for NSW, which has the nation's most rapid growth in prisoner numbers, much of it caused by successive governments imposing ever longer sentences. The numbers in NSW jails went through the 10,000 mark two years ago and doubled between 1993 and 2007.
But the bureau's latest research shows that it is likely that lengthening prison sentences - even doubling them - would have no effect at all on crime rates for common property and violent offences. What does have an effect is the likelihood of being arrested by the police. And the risk of going to jail - but not for longer terms than we already have.
"Increasing the risk of arrest or the risk of imprisonment reduces crime, while increasing the length of prison sentences exerts no measurable effect at all," the study noted, looking at crime across 153 local government areas across NSW.
Whilst that finding bolsters the case of those who argue for more police - on the obvious logic that more police catch more criminals - the more-police approach doesn't produce anything near the crime-fighting grunt that a well performing economy does.
The bureau's maths tells the story: a 10 per cent increase in the risk of arrest for a violent crime produces a 2.9 per cent fall in violent crime. And a 10 per cent increase in the chances of going to jail for a violent crime yields a violent crime drop of 1.7 per cent. When the chances of arrest and imprisonment are lifted by 10 per cent for property crime there is also a corresponding - though smaller - drop in the property crime rate.
But those crime drops are miniscule when compared with the crime drops capable of being produced by Australia's sunny economic times. A 10 per cent increase in household income was estimated to produce an 18.9 per cent dive in property crime over the longer term. For violent crime, a 10 per cent increase in household income produces a 14.6 per cent crash in violent crime.
The bureau's director, Dr Don Weatherburn, says while he expected to find a correlation between a well-performing economy - at least over the past decade - and the falling crime rate, he did not expect the correlation to be so dramatic.
"I thought it was amazing," he said.
He says it can be explained by looking at the group responsible for much violent and property crime: young males, generally lacking more desirable job skills.
Dr Weatherburn says: "Crime has been falling while the economy has been booming. One of the reasons for why that has been happening is that young people coming out of school before 2000, a lot of them didn't get jobs and a lot of them who got jobs were on lousy earnings. But since 2000, real average weekly earnings have been rising and the long-term unemployment rate has been falling. So it's money for jam if you can get a decent job. "
And what is the effect of a relatively decent job on what otherwise might be a criminal mind?
Says Dr Weatherburn: "There is also the issue of self-esteem, what's their stake in conformity. If they are on the dole, there's not a huge stake in conformity. But if you are in a job and you are earning reasonable money and the money is growing year in and year out, you've got a reasonable stake in staying out of trouble. So it may not just be the money - it may be the sense of belonging that goes with being in an economy that is growing and handing you employment."
While the crime drop cannot, in its entirety, be attributed to Australia's decade long prosperity, the drops across the country have been spectacular. The Australian Institute of Criminology's annual crime report released this month shows that house break-ins, nationally, have halved since 1996, car theft has fallen by more than 60 per cent over the past decade, and murders have declined by over a quarter between 1996 and 2010.
Other factors behind the drop include more efficient policing, the heroin shortage in NSW from 2000 to 2004 which led to a big drop in property crime (the incentive to steal to pay for heroin diminished), vastly improved anti-theft devices on vehicles and, in NSW, at least, a prison incarceration rate that has continued to climb while crime was falling.
It is the last factor - the imprisonment rate - that is certainly effective in cutting crime, but it is also at the limits of its worth, according to the report. While it is obvious that removing criminals from the streets (to jail) has been effective, the research now says there's no point in politicians increasing jail terms any further for property and violent crimes. The reason? It makes no sense to fill the jails with ageing criminals who are just as likely to go straight by dint of their age.
Says Dr Weatherburn of the temptation to increase jail sentences still further: "We might feel better for it, but it is not going to have any effect on their rate of offending. Because at the age of 55 years most of these people, even the hardened criminal offenders, are just about ready to stop. So you get less bang for your buck."
The research paper saves its most intriguing - and possibly most enlightening - point until its last paragraph: "The effects of income on crime are far larger than those of the criminal justice system. This suggests that measures that effect the economic wellbeing of the community provide more potential leverage over crime than measures that influence the risk of arrest or the severity of the punishments imposed on offenders."
What the bureau's study does is put some real figures on what results might be expected - and not expected - from various strategies to deal with crime. Law-and-order policy, in NSW at least, has long operated in a way that other Government policy has not; it has been made without or with very little assessment of the costs and benefits of policies - in particular those that mandate ever-longer prison sentences.
As the study says: "State and Territory governments have generally acted as if the best way to control crime is to appoint more police and put more offenders in prison for longer, but policies directed toward this end have rarely, if ever, been defended on the basis of evidence. The need for more Australian research on the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in controlling crime has never been more acute."
We can thank the great Italian jurist, Cesare Beccaria and his 1764 treatise On Crimes and Punishments for the theory that if the pain obtained from punishments exceeds the pleasure obtained from crime then people will choose not to commit crime.
We might now say that if the pain obtained from spending on crime control exceeds the pleasure of the results, then the people might choose to spend less.