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Crime calculations

Print edition : Jun 18, 2010 T+T-
A police department canine officer patrolling a subway at Grand Central Station, New York. Focussed policing can make it difficult for people to commit crimes.-BEBETO MATTHEWS/AP

A police department canine officer patrolling a subway at Grand Central Station, New York. Focussed policing can make it difficult for people to commit crimes.-BEBETO MATTHEWS/AP

Latest reports from the United States point to a marked drop in crime. The Uniform Crime Report (UCR), prepared annually by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), states that in 2009 both violent and property offences dipped by nearly 5 per cent. This phenomenon of declining crime has been maintained for three consecutive years, bucking the trend in most parts of the globe. Viewed against the backdrop of the U.S.' troubled economy and the country's excruciating levels of unemployment, these statistics have perplexed criminologists who placed excessive faith in the causal link between economic stress and deviance.

The UCR is a fairly reliable document based on returns volunteered by more than 10,000 police departments all over the U.S. The police in the U.S. are generally known for their aversion to suppressing reported crime. The nationwide computerised 911 telephonic emergency service also makes it difficult for any dishonest or slack policeman to disregard a complaint. The problem, however, is that crime is more often a matter of public perception than of numbers. It is also a subject that yields itself to inane generalisations. No amount of rigorous statistical analysis will convince people that the crime rate is falling. Such claims are often looked upon as sophistry. This is why no single theory of crime ever holds water for long.

Fluctuations in the crime rate are hard to explain. This is an area that baffles the most profound criminologist. Contrary to popular belief, a bad economy does not necessarily trigger crime. Several other factors determine its rise or fall. A truism that is ignored by even the most learned scholars and practitioners is the need for an interdisciplinary approach to explain, at least partially, the changing pattern or incidence of crime.

The recent annual conference of the Royal Economic Society (RES) held at the University of Surrey in England, interestingly, devoted some time to crime and allied phenomena. I am yet to come across any Indian economist of repute discussing the economic scene and correlating it to the growing trends of violent crime in India. My hunch is that many economists at home consider it infra dig to dwell on crime, which is, after all, the domain of the less intellectually endowed policeman and casual scholar at some lowly universities. This perhaps explains why India has produced so few papers of worth in the area.

The REC conference analysed two themes: What prevents crime? and What is the incentive to stay away from crime? These questions are intertwined and bring up issues of immediate prevention and long-term strategies to raise a new generation that is not inclined towards crime but actually has a stake in good conduct.

According to Philip Cook of Duke University and John MacDonald of the University of Pennsylvania (both in the U.S.), who spoke at the RES conference, there are some immediate means by which a high-crime region can get substantial relief. These include target-hardening, which makes property that is vulnerable to crime difficult to plunder.

Such targeting takes the form of burglar alarms, stronger building structures, street-view illumination of premises to reduce opportunities for clandestine entry, and so on. Cook pointed out how in spite of the explosion in the numbers of automobiles on the road, car thefts had come down. Steering locks, engine immobilisers and intelligent tracking systems contributed to this situation.

Ben Vollaard of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, in his presentation at the conference, highlighted how strict building regulations could make premises nearly inviolable; for instance, a new Dutch building code ensures that buildings constructed after 1999 are more secure than those built earlier. This code has made it mandatory for buildings to have a superior locking systems and stronger windows and doors. There is actually no limit to innovation in the area of target-hardening.

Cook also said focussed policing in areas with valuable property could make it difficult to commit crime. He believes the creation of Business Improvement Districts (BID), which are non-profit organisations born out of the collective efforts of business and industry and offer quality security services, can help protect commercial property. Security guards hired by BIDs are not distracted by other police chores and hence are able to react at once to acts of crime. BIDs cost much less than the regular police because of lower wages.

The city of Los Angeles has had a successful experiment in utilising BIDs. A California law of the 1990s actually made it obligatory for businesses to come together to create a BID. This may not appeal to the average citizen, who is forever sceptical of what are seen as half-measures to cut down on crime. Turning to the fundamental question of how to wean people away from crime, there have been historic theories that were once heresies but are now viewed with greater respect.

We have no doubt come a long way from the Babylonian King Hammurabi's code of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But there are still a sizeable number of people who believe in deterrence if not in retribution. Shades of this were seen in the Indian public's response to the death penalties imposed on Afzal Guru and Ajmal Kasab. The majority believe that capital punishment is the most appropriate punishment for these two considering the gravity of their crimes. No one, however, can bet that future Afzal Gurus and Ajmal Kasabs will be deterred by the death penalty.

The famous 18th century Italian economist Cesare Beccaria, who accidentally strayed into penology, spoke persuasively against capital punishment. His revolutionary piece, An Essay on Crimes and Punishments, pointed out that punishment should be based on economics, namely, it should outweigh the benefit derived by the criminal in question.

According to him, people make a rational choice when deciding to commit a crime, and do so only after making sure that the risks involved are lower than the benefits derived. This cost-benefit analysis precedes a crime. In Beccaria's estimate, any penalty that exceeds the benefit that an offender derives from his deviance is a waste of public resources.

Consider for a moment the enormous investment that a country like the U.S makes on new prisons. The authorities seem blind to the well-accepted maxim that prisons deter only a few. Criminologist after criminologist has pointed out how prisons lock up many people who pose no threat at all to society and who are incarcerated not because they had caused bodily harm to others but because they stole or otherwise violated a law that preaches good conduct. This is true of every country, and in my own experience, I know how many undertrials languish in Indian jails awaiting sentences for trivial transgressions of the law. There is undoubtedly some rationale in jailing persons when there is a danger of violent crime. But the objective should be one of containing violent crime rather than offences that are merely a slight to the victims. This is an easily comprehensible analysis of the shortcomings of the criminal justice system as it exists. But not many in government will buy it for sheer reasons of political expediency.

If in the ultimate analysis deterrence does not work, what else will keep crime low? This question has triggered many theories, one of which is to enlarge educational opportunities to the poorest in the community. I am convinced that the rate at which India is expanding the chance for every child to go to school, the country should have a lot less crime in the decades to come. This is very comforting.

A paper presented at the REC conference by Stephen Machin of the University College London (UCL) with two others supports the thesis that the longer the youth stay in school, the less likely they will be to commit a crime on completion of their studies. The arithmetic is that an extra year of education reduces property offences by 1 to 2 per cent. This finding resonated with a paper presented by Lance Lochner of the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and Enrico Moretti of the University of California, Berkeley.

There are immense possibilities to make the study of criminology more relevant to contemporary society. India needs to catch up with the U.S. and the United Kingdom, in particular, in making its research more rigorous and quantitative. The Home Ministry has to ensure this through imaginative funding to institutions of repute and monitoring of projects. Nothing else will enhance our credibility as a nation that has faith in applied research.