We'll raise you seven prisons

June 1, 2001

As Labour tries to out-bid the Tories in the fight against crime, nobody has checked the facts, say Roger Matthews and Jock Young.

Between 1995 and 1999 there was a 23 per cent drop in the crime rate, according to the authoritative British Crime Survey. Police-generated crime figures indicate a similar trend, showing a decrease in crime in the region of 20 per cent over the past ten years.

The steady rise of crime from the 1960s has turned. And the decline has been not just in property offences, but also in relation to violent crime - with the exception of street robbery.

Such a decline is scarcely some statistical blip. Similar decreases in crime have been reported in 13 out of 21 industrial nations, including the United States. It has occurred in countries with strict prison regimes as well as those with small prison populations. It has occurred in states with zero-tolerance policies and those where traditional community policing strategies predominate. The burden of evidence suggests the figures reflect demographic factors (a less youthful population), a favourable economic climate and the increased sophistication of crime-prevention measures.

Labour has been fortunate in the law-and-order stakes. Every administration since the 1960s has had to confront an apparently relentless increase in crime. Labour ministers might have linked the government's successful economic policies with its crime reduction strategies and concluded that this marked the start of a benign trend in our society. But what has occurred instead is that they have competed with the Conservatives in playing up the image of a disorderly Britain and their law-and-order policy has been directed accordingly.

Labour has attempted to increase the size of the police force and has embarked on a massive programme of prison expansion. The rapid increase in the scale of imprisonment, which occurred under Michael Howard during the previous Conservative administration, has been perpetuated by Labour home secretary Jack Straw.

It would be hard to find an academic criminologist in the country who supports prison expansion or more than a few who believe that increases in police manpower will have much impact on crime rates. Government policies fly directly in the face of the research evidence and seem wilfully to ignore expert opinion. This is surprising from a Labour administration that places such an emphasis on evidence-led policies.

Perhaps more surprising is the silence from the academic community. One would have expected the letter columns of the qualities to be awash with complaints and television interviews to be jammed with critics, but no one seems to want to put their head above the parapet.

Part of this is no doubt a fast-vanishing faith in Labour as the party of penal reform, but there are also self-serving reasons. Labour has thrown a lot of money at law and order and the amount of research funding available to criminologists is greater than in living memory.

Consequently, few criminologists are willing to rock the boat. Criticism has, as a consequence, moved increasingly into the realms of high theory, while policy is given an easy ride.

Roger Matthews and Jock Young are professors of sociology at the Centre for Criminology, Middlesex University, which is hosting a law and order conference today. Details at: www.mdx.ac.uk/www/issr/research/centre4crim.htm

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