An international perspective on crime

Print edition : August 15, 2003

Any crime control endeavour that does not go hand-in-hand with a conscious effort to alleviate miserable living conditions is bound to succeed only marginally.

A HIGHLY readable essay that I came across recently - courtesy the ever helpful American Center's staff in Chennai - provides the meat for this fortnight's column. Written in delightful style by Prof. Gene Stephens of the University of South Carolina for The Futurist (May-June 2003), this piece, "Global trends in crime" lends a lot of food for thought to those who deal with crime control the world over. The professor's forthright assertions and cut-and-dried solutions to an eternal problem are not irrelevant to the common man either.

Fear of crime is all-pervasive, and there is hardly any citizen who is happy the way the state in any part of the world has dealt with it. Stephens, a Professor Emeritus in Criminology and Criminal Justice, hits the nail on the head when he states that crime could be kept at reasonable levels by "smarter" and not necessarily "tougher" policing. This is a view shared by my good friend Prof. David Bayley of State University of New York, Albany, whose Police for the Future (Oxford University Press, 1994) carries many nuggets of wisdom on crime and allied matters. Pouring in thousands of police personnel on the streets will be wasteful if such deployment is for a mere show of strength and is not backed by an incisive study of trends. Not many in the Indian police understand this, and this is why we hear of constant demands for more manpower that embarrass governments and strain the exchequer enormously.

I am in a minority within the police community that is unabashedly apologetic about crime statistics. Readers must be tired of hearing the same sermon from me; do not trust figures trumped up by police personnel because they do not tell the whole story. Contrary to my long-held belief, Prof. Stephens suggests that manipulation of crime figures is not the sole prerogative of the Indian police personnel, and that his counterparts in New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta in the U.S. are equally adept in this unwholesome practice of burying crime to dress up statistics! Perhaps this is an occupational disease for which there is no cure. Nevertheless, Prof. Stephens is willing to sail along with studies that point to a drop in crime in the U.S., and which say that life in that country, notwithstanding 9/11, is safer than before. At the same time, he admits that popular perceptions do not square with such optimism. This is especially since the fear psychosis generated by terrorism tends to equate the latter with ordinary crime. You cannot shoot this down, because, strictly speaking, terrorism cannot be viewed in isolation from violent crime, however much its perpetrators may try to give it a certain ideological elan.

Interestingly, while a highly crime-prone country such as the U.S. has, at least statistically speaking, shown marked improvement, some traditionally low-crime areas in the globe, especially in Europe, now reflect the opposite trend. According to one report, some of the Scandinavian countries are now going through a wave of street crime. This again is based on statistics.

Apart from the questionable reliability of figures collected by law-enforcement agencies, another issue is, how far a comparison of crime figures between countries is rational and tenable. This is because definitions of crime vary, and measurements are also uneven. Two examples are drug-related crime and white-collar offences. Countries such as Holland have legalised a few drug violations, and others have looked kindly at prostitution. Until September 11 happened, money laundering received little adverse notice from many law-enforcement agencies. The high-handedness of our own laws and enforcement agencies over foreign exchange violations, until liberalisation stepped in, invited not only the ire but ridicule of many countries which believed in full convertibility of their currency. This is why we have to be extremely circumspect in comparing crime situations and restrict our exercise to a few commonly viewed serious offences such as murder, rape and robbery.

Some comfort is available in the form of a World Crime Survey that was initiated a few years ago by the United Nations. It provides some meaningful insights in a comparative perspective. The homicide rate (that is, the number of homicide cases per 100,000 population) in the U.S. was one of the highest in the 1980s. Since the 1990s, however, it has been declining. It was 5.5 in 2000, as against 8.2 in 1995. Sex offences (rape, molestation and harassment) have also shown a downward trend. It is a matter of surprise that Canada and some Scandinavian countries report a distinctly disturbing situation with regard to assaults on women. Most of the Asian countries are in a far better shape here in this respect. This is possibly explained by the influence of religion and other cultural factors. Burglary and robbery rates in the U.S. are lower than in the U.K. and some of the European countries.

In India, only a marginal increase (less than 1 per cent) in overall crime was reported in 2000, the last year for which official figures are available (Crime in India 2000, published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) of the Ministry of Home Affairs, New Delhi). Actually, property-related crime declined by 5 per cent. The homicide rate remains as low as 3.7 per cent, almost two percentage points lower than the U.S. I know most readers will not buy this. There is no way we can ignore the figures so assiduously assembled by the NCRB despite several handicaps, chief of which is the lack of expedition on the part of State police forces in transmitting data to the Bureau. (Crime in India 2001 is still being compiled!) This is why I have been repeatedly pleading for a crime survey of the kind that has been almost institutionalised in the U.S. and the U.K. Such surveys are no doubt an expensive exercise. But they are a tool with which we can juxtapose statistics and popular perceptions, and at least partially correct obvious distortions in the police mechanics of collecting data.

WHATEVER the situation, given the reasonably reliable crime statistics of the U.S., how did that country manage to bring down crime? This is of universal interest, and should evoke special attention from countries such as India where the situation is delicate if not wholly distressing. Prof. Stephens identifies three "loose coalitions" or schools of thought. According to one of them, tough criminal justice policies have in fact worked. The "three strikes, you are out" legislation (that is, if you get caught for the third time, you are liable to be locked up for life) in some states, mandatory incarceration for certain types of offences (such as drug possession and domestic violence) and the drive - especially in major cities like New York that have practised the controversial zero tolerance policing - against petty offenders, taking them out of streets and thereby preventing them from moving to serious crime, are all cited as stern measures that have yielded dividends. One may not agree that these alone have worked. Nor will the hard-boiled human rights activist endorse this as the best way to handle crime. Nevertheless, a strategy based on strong laws, long periods of incarceration and greater attention to small-time criminals, despite its rough edges, is better than no strategy at all.

Demographics are also cited to explain the reasonably low levels of crime in the U.S. During the 1990s, employment rates went up and wages kept pace with them. Many in their late 30s, who would normally have concentrated only on their vocation, were freed from economic pressures, enabling them to go back to schools and colleges. This took many potential miscreants away from the streets. The argument seems a little stretched, but cannot be dismissed as fanciful in the absence of rigorous research findings to disprove it. Lamentably, U.S. demographics are fast changing. There is now a strong segment of the population that has been hit by the current economic stagnation and higher joblessness. Predictions for the immediate future are therefore a cause for worry, especially in the context of reports that many corporations in that country are lured by the profitability of outsourcing activities to other parts of the world where labour is cheap. The numbers involved are sufficiently large to eat into employment opportunities and thereby influence crime rates. Prof. Stephens, therefore, believes that crime rates may no longer remain low. Let us wait and see how far he is right.

A third school of thought celebrates community-based approaches to crime, an area that is lately receiving some, but not enough, attention in India. A strategy that combines problem-oriented policing (POP) - evolved by eminent professors such as Herbert Goldstein of the University of Wisconsin - and community policing - advocated by Professors David Bayley, Jack Greene and others - has received the nod of many criminologists as one sure way of bringing down crime. In POP, researchers and police personnel first identify a problem (such as drug peddling, prostitution, street vandalism or beggary, often referred to as "pan handling") that is dominant in a locality and move in swiftly to tackle it. Thereafter this is not a mere police concern. The community is also energised to act in tandem with the police. POP has worked wonders in many small neighbourhoods in the U.S., of course, with active and generous community support. POP's value has not been adequately understood by many Indian police leaders who, while seeing the big picture, miss out on simple strategies that are efficient and cost-effective. Incidentally, Prof. Ronald Clarke of Rutgers University, New Jersey, who has done incredible work in the area of crime prevention in many parts of the world, has devoted a whole web site to POP (www.popcenter.org). I find it to be extremely informative, and would recommend it strongly to police officers at all levels in India who are looking for practical tips to solve many a community problem.

The new emphasis on restorative justice that brings the offender and the victim to meet and exchange information on a particular occurrence has also been promising. Conflict resolution, with or without the aid of police, but under the auspices of community leaders, has helped to tackle minor crime. Arbitration, restitution (money compensation or restoration of property to the victim by the offender himself) and sending the offender to do community service rather than subject him to long-drawn-out court trial, have all proved effective. Unfortunately, community service sentences by court are yet to find statutory recognition in our country. This is a matter of extreme regret.

HOW is the 21st century going to be different from the earlier times? While we will continue to be dogged by ordinary street crime, the increased use of technology and gadgetry by many police forces should enhance risks involved in committing crime. As Prof. Stephens predicts, we could be seeing enhanced levels of white collar crime, especially computer crimes, that make locating an offender relatively difficult. Recent monumental corporate frauds in the U.S. are a clear indicator of the shape of things to come. Alongside terrorism and the threat of use of biological weapons, white-collar offences will test the investigator's abilities. As Prof. Stephens says, what bothers many officials in the U.S. is the distinct possibility of a "Pearl Harbour" on the Internet that would paralyse essential services such as air traffic control, water and power supplies and hospital services.

How far are we prepared for this? No single nation, including the U.S., can tackle this forbidding scene all by itself. Prof. Stephens therefore foresees enhanced international cooperation. We in India have definitely benefited in the recent past through partnership with the U.S.' Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and a host of such organisations in Europe. Escalation of trafficking in human beings and child pornography has introduced the need for swift action through multinational endeavours. Anti-money-laundering operations have also received a fillip in the recent past. There is a strong case for stepping up joint operations by agencies, unfettered by narrow considerations of sovereignty.

Crime prevention has till now rested heavily on opportunity reduction. Prof. Ron Clarke's work has especially commended target hardening whereby potential offenders find access to property in view extremely difficult. In Prof. Stephens' view we can move one step further by paying some attention to desire reduction. He attributes recent terrorist attacks to desperation and enhanced religious fervour caused by direct encounter with poverty and illiteracy. One can hardly dispute Prof. Stephens' perception, although he could be mistaken for trying to take us into the realms of philosophy and moral science! After all, does not the Bhagvad Gita preach the same? Is he saying anything new? Not necessarily, because the traditional view of many criminologists is that most, if not all, crime is driven by acute deprivation. Nevertheless, Prof. Stephens' message is that any crime control endeavour that does not go hand-in-hand with a conscious effort to alleviate miserable living conditions is bound to succeed only marginally. In the course of this column, I have not said anything that has not been said before by more eminent experts. My limited objective here is to place things in their correct perspective so that at least some policy-makers in the country are stirred into action.

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