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p. 837. How do we control crime?locked

  • Tim Newburn


‘How do we control crime?’ discusses the formal and less formal means thought to control crime. The formal means refer to the use of the criminal justice system: the police, courts, and prison system. Arising from what we know to be the limitations of organized criminal justice in relation to crime control, the less formal means to control crime are considered as the processes of socialization, whereby social norms and values are learned, reinforced by what is often referred to as informal social control. Recent trends in the use of punishment, from incarceration in prisons to the use of non-custodial, community-based penalties are also discussed.

In this chapter, I want to discuss both the formal and less formal means that might be thought to control crime. First is to consider formal means, by and large by using what we refer to as the criminal justice system. In saying this we must recognize, of course, that our penal system has many functions beyond controlling crime, not the least of which is administering justice irrespective of its impact on offending. Second, and arising from what we know to be the limitations of organized criminal justice in relation to crime control, I want to consider the less formalized means by which crime might be held in check—the processes of socialization and learning of social norms and values, reinforced by what is often referred to as informal social control. Let’s begin by looking at recent trends in the use of punishment—using examples from around the globe.

Trends in punishment

There are a variety of institutions that we now most closely associate with formal criminal justice—the police, criminal courts, and prisons being the most obvious. Most, in the main, are relatively recent arrivals. Formally organized and state funded police forces have been with us for no longer than two centuries. Prisons, though they have been around a fair while longer, in many respects differ considerably in form and function from the p. 84prisons of 200‒300 years ago. The same is broadly true of the courts. Such systems are not only a modern creation, their nature and operation changes over time, and they also vary considerably from place to place.

Our systems of punishment have changed radically also. In many jurisdictions up until at least the 18th century the death penalty was a regularly used and centrally important form of punishment by the state. Though a few dozen countries retain the death penalty, including China (by far the greatest user of capital punishment), India, Japan, Singapore—and—America, it appears to be something that is slowly disappearing. The prison now generally represents the most serious penalty most states can impose. The last century or so has seen the emergence of a range of other punishments, from financial penalties such as fines or compensation to victims, through community-based sanctions such as probation, community service-style penalties, and so forth.

How has the use of punishment changed in the past half century or thereabouts? As we saw in Chapter 4, in many countries crime rates rose, often quite steeply, in the post-war years, until the late 1980s/early to mid-1990s, and then they began to fall and seemingly to fall quite dramatically. Might we expect our use of punishment to follow these trends in some way—perhaps to increase and expand as crime rises and then subsequently to fall? Such assumptions are superficially plausible but are not supported by evidence. As we saw in Chapter 6, while it would be stretching a point to suggest that there is no relationship between crime and punishment, it is not necessarily the one we might expect.

Let us start with the United States. As we saw in Chapter 6, so far as imprisonment is concerned, what has happened in the United States is nothing short of extraordinary. The overall federal and state prison population increased from about 30,000 to well over a quarter of a million between 1880 and 1980—a more than eightfold expansion of the numbers of Americans incarcerated. p. 85However, the US population also grew substantially, and therefore the change to the incarceration rate—generally assessed as the number of people incarcerated per 100,000 of population—is a better indicator. This rose from 61 per 100,000 in 1880 to 145 by 1980, an increase of 133 per cent.

It is what has happened since then that is truly remarkable. The US prison population and the incarceration rate began an astonishing rise that was to be almost continuous and was to last for the best part of three decades. From an incarceration rate of 145 per 100,000 in 1980 it reached a high of over 500 per 100,000 by around 2007‒8. Where the first four-fifths of the century had seen the prison population well below quarter of a million, by the early 21st century it had reached well over 1.5 million (see Figure 9). Add local jails and by this point something over 2.2 million American citizens were in prison at any one time.

9. Federal and state prison population, and incarceration rate, USA, 1950‒2013.

If one adds together all those under some form of criminal justice supervision in America—whether in prison, on parole having been p. 86released from prison, or being supervised on probation in the community—the figure reached nearly 7.5 million at its peak in 2007. Put a different way, the number of people in prison, on probation, or on parole in America is roughly equivalent to the combined populations of Los Angeles and Chicago, the second and third largest cities in the country.

Once again, however, we should remind ourselves that these are very general statistics and that within America there is huge variation in the ways in which states operate their criminal justice and penal systems. Thus, for example, the correctional supervision rate—the number of people in prison, on parole, or on probation per 100,000 population—varies from just under 1,000 in the State of Maine to over 7,600 in Georgia, or one in thirteen of the adult population. As we will see, by international standards the rates of incarceration and other penal supervision even in the states with the lowest figures are extremely high. So, while we must generally guard against treating the United States crudely and uniformly, it is nevertheless the case that it stands out, comparatively, almost in whatever form it is considered.

In Australia, the growth in the prison population, and the incarceration rate, has been steady and constant. While the prison population was under 10,000 in 1982, by 2015 it had reached over 35,000, with the incarceration rate more than doubling in the same period from just under 90 per 100,000 in 1982 to almost 200 by 2015 (see Figure 10). Australia, like the US, is also a federal system and one where there are significant differences between territories. The state of Victoria, for example, had an incarceration rate of around 134 per 100,000 in 2015, whereas Western Australia’s was over twice as high at 278. Both are dwarfed, however, by the prison situation in Australia’s Northern Territory, which has an extraordinary incarceration rate of almost 900 per 100,000, in other words significantly higher than that of the United States (though not all individual US States). What Australia’s Northern Territory shares with the US is the vastly p. 87disproportionate representation of minorities (in this case indigenous Australians) in the prison system.

10. Prison population and incarceration rate, Australia, 1982‒2015.

As with the US and Australia, the last twenty-five years have seen a very significant expansion in the number of people in prison in England and Wales. The prison population grew fairly steadily in the post-war years, but it was really from the early 1990s—at a point when both main political parties began to fight to be seen as tough on crime—that the most significant spurt took place.

Very much in contrast with the countries considered thus far, Canada’s recent penal history has taken a different path. Both in terms of the use of prison and the use of non-custodial, community-based penalties, Canada’s rates have remained relatively stable. Over a thirty-year period, Canada’s incarceration rate has been all but flat (see Figure 11). At the beginning the 1980s, Canada’s incarceration rate was slightly higher than that in Australia, yet by 2015 Australia’s was approximately 50 per cent higher than that of Canada. Canada did experience some growth in non-custodial penalties, particularly in the late 1980s/early 1990s, p. 88but overall the correctional supervision rate (prison, probation, etc., combined) grew by less than 10 per cent between 1980 and 2011.

11. Correctional supervision rate, Canada, 1980‒2011.

There are many countries that have experienced a significant shift in a punitive direction, with prison populations and incarceration rates rising, often steeply, but there are also others that buck that trend. Since the early 1990s, for example, there have been significant increases in the incarceration rates in Spain, Greece, France, Ireland, and Scotland. The Netherlands, had comparatively low levels of incarceration in the 1980s, then quadrupled its rate by 2006, before then decreasing it by almost half in the following decade. By contrast, and rather like Canada, the major Scandinavian countries—Sweden, Norway, and Denmark—have all seen relatively little change in their incarceration rates, and in Finland it has even dropped (from seventy per 100,000 in 1992 to fifty-seven in 2015).

Why is there so much variation? As we saw when discussing the crime drop in Chapter 6, there is no clear or simple relationship p. 89between levels and types of punishment, and crime levels. Indeed, there is now a very considerable body of research that suggests that the impact of formal criminal justice on crime rates is not necessarily all that large. This flies in the face of much public opinion, which assumes, for example, that increasing police numbers will necessarily make us safer. As we have seen, it might, but there is certainly no guarantee. The lack of any clear relationship also flies directly contrary to much political rhetoric which argues that ‘tough on crime’ policies—more prisons, tougher sentencing, and so on—will necessarily bring crime down. Again, it might, but as has been shown it is by much less than many would believe, and certainly less than politicians often claim. If policing, courts and prisons have a limited impact, then what else accounts for orderliness? The answer is … people in groups, small and large. We, collectively, are all engaged in an informal project which produces general social stability and order. The general predictability of life around you is a consequence, not of the presence of police officers or the threat of punishment by the courts, but, rather, is the product of the more or less predictable interactions of individuals in myriad social settings, and the internalized desire we all carry urging us to avoid the consequences that occur when such predictability is challenged. This, in general terms, is what we usually refer to as ‘informal social control’, the subject to which we turn next.

Socialization and informal social control

At the end of the last section, I talked of the desire most of us carry urging us to avoid the consequences that would likely result when informal expectations are not met. The American criminologist, Charles Tittle, once observed that ‘social control as a general process seems to be rooted almost completely in informal sanctioning’. He went on to suggest that our perceptions of the probability or severity of formal sanctions appeared not to have much of an effect, and even where they do have an impact, much of that appears to be dependent on the way we perceive p. 90informal sanctions. When we talk of informal sanctions, what might we mean? Two examples. You’re approaching someone you’ve met several times before; they’re walking along a corridor, or a street, towards you. You can’t remember their name. You know you can’t avoid them, and try as you might their name just won’t come into your head. Any moment you’re going to have to deal with the fact that you can’t easily introduce them to the person you’re walking with.

Given how much difficulty many of us have with names and faces, this is a far from uncommon occurrence and most people will have experienced it. But why does it matter? It matters because of social convention. In many circumstances it is considered impolite not to introduce people who may not know each other. In short, we want to do the right thing and we fear the embarrassment of failing to abide by some essentially minor social conventions. No-one is likely to make a big deal out of it but, in ourselves, we feel a degree of discomfort—a discomfort we’d prefer to avoid. It is precisely the fact that we generally seek to avoid such discomforts in everyday life, in this case by responding to internalized informal social control stimuli, that keeps our behaviour predictable.

London’s underground (subway train) system has, like most such city metro systems, a very large number of escalators, many of them quite long and steep, and, during rush hours, also very busy. The escalators are just wide enough to fit two people side by side. There is a system on the escalators in London whereby those who wish to stand still, stand on the right of the escalator, leaving a space to the left for anyone who may wish to walk. It is a largely informal system, there are no formal sanctions that can be imposed on anyone failing to conform, though there are signs on the escalators encouraging and supporting the behaviour. The system is enormously successful. By and large anyone not planning on walking up or down the escalator can always be found standing on the right, irrespective of how busy or quiet p. 91the station is. Those found static on the left are most usually visitors or others unfamiliar with the system and its informal rules—children for example. How does it work? Not through the threat of formal sanctions—there aren’t any. Again, it is the power of social expectations.

Once we’ve learned the informal rules of the situation, most people most of the time will comply. It costs them little to do so and, crucially, they are keen to avoid the consequences of failing to comply: the unfavourable opinion of others who are unhappy that the smooth running of the escalator system has been disrupted.

Social norms and expectations frame our conduct from the moment we wake, encompassing when and how we wash and dress for example, right through the day, including when and what we eat, and the different ways in which we interact with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers. The rituals of everyday life are complicated. We have to learn and internalize them. They are rarely highly specific or inflexible, but rather are cues or broad guides about appropriate conduct. Put together, our expectations of each other and ourselves, as learned in families, schools, communities, workplaces, and so on, form the fundamental basis for the orderliness of everyday life. This is what the American sociologist, Erving Goffman, called the interaction order, the workings of which, he suggested, could easily be viewed as the consequences of ‘systems of enabling conventions’ and something like the ground rules of a game.

How do the participants in this ‘game’ learn its general ground rules? At heart, and put slightly differently, this simple yet profound question can be put as ‘what is it that makes us social beings? How do we learn to behave in groups, small and large? The process is what we call socialization. We tend to think of the main agents of this process as being family, community, friends/peers, school, work, media, and, at least traditionally, religion. My two granddaughters visited today. The older of the p. 92two is, like all 4-year-olds, immensely energetic and in need of a lot of general supervision. Family interaction consequently involves lots of guidance about how to behave: ‘please come and sit at the table to eat’; ‘I think we ought to put all these games away if we’re finished with them’, or, on the way to local playground, ‘please don’t run here, it’s a very busy road’. No doubt there were dozens of these, in part intended as tiny building blocks in a young person’s development, and in part all helping to maintain the particular interaction order that is our family.

Parenting involves issuing regular reminders about what to do and say, about what is expected in some circumstances but not in others, and offering guidance about how different forms of conduct are likely to be understood and perceived by others. Much of this is done explicitly, though oftentimes children learn simply through interaction—learning the different responses their behaviour is likely to produce. The socialization of young children by their parents is fairly easy to understand, and in many respects the same may largely be said of the influence of the other main ‘agents’ of socialization. It is not hard to understand how schools, especially when children are young, play a crucial role in their moral education and development. Similarly, friendship and peer groups can exercise considerable sway over individuals and may be of very particular importance at certain stages of development. The world of work, the influence of mass media and increasingly of social media, and the role of organized religion—all of these are potentially of great significance in helping understand how what Goffman referred to as the ‘enabling conventions’ or ground rules of everyday conduct are learned.

Now, let us return to crime control. In the most general terms criminological thinking can be divided into two camps. First, there are those who begin from the assumption that humans are broadly compliant and orderly, and the key question therefore becomes why do they sometimes commit crimes? By contrast there are those who begin from the assumption that we are p. 93generally unruly and self-interested, and from this starting point the key question becomes what restrains us and why so much of the time do we seem to comply with rules? Crudely put, the first band of criminologists is interested in the differing motivations individuals may have for committing crimes, whereas the second are more focused on the different restraints or controls likely to be in operation. If forced to choose I would be more in the latter camp than the former but, fortunately, one doesn’t have to choose, and consequently both perspectives can be utilized in attempting to understand human conduct.

The second group of criminologists would broadly fall into a camp called ‘control theorists’. One of the earliest statements outlining this position came from Jackson Toby who, writing in the 1950s, focused in particular on what was at stake in rule breaking:

the differences between the law-abiding adolescent and the hoodlum is not that one has impulses to violate the rules of society while the other has not. Both are tempted to break laws at some time or other—because laws prohibit what circumstance may make attractive: driving an automobile at 80 miles an hour, beating up an enemy, taking what one wants without paying for it. The hoodlum yields to these temptations. They boy living in a middle-class neighbourhood does not. How can this difference be accounted for?

His answer was that these two generalized individuals have different stakes in conformity. In short, one has much more to lose if found out than does the other. Their ‘good reputation’, perhaps their job, or their educational opportunities, might be jeopardized by public revelation of such infractions. The implication of the use of the term ‘hoodlum’ is that this individual is either known or expected to be someone who would break such social conventions. Their reputation is already compromised. Almost certainly they have less to lose in terms of education or employment. Subsequently, this position was refined with others arguing that what prevented individuals from acting on criminal p. 94motivations was what they called a commitment to conformity, or later was referred to as the social bond. Developed via socialization, this could involve loss—of reputation, the good opinion of others, self-esteem—as well as gain in the shape of anticipated future rewards. What is being described here is a developmental process involving the gradually increasing social integration of the individual. Imprisonment, one might argue, does precisely the opposite, disrupting social ties, loosening attachments of various types, and, overall, working to reduce the degree of social integration of the individual concerned.

The next step for control theorists is to consider the forms of control that bear upon and constrain any deviant desires. There are internalized controls, inhibitions resulting from moral beliefs, conscience, or shame; indirect controls in the form of social censure that comes from family members, peers, and others; and the more direct forms of control that come from concern about formal sanctions. Control theorists tend to argue that some combination of indirect control, especially by the family, and self-control that results from concern for the long-term consequences of conduct is crucial in the process of enabling temptation to be resisted.

From my point of view, the most sophisticated and persuasive work in this tradition is the ‘age-graded theory of informal social control’ associated with Robert Sampson and John Laub. For these authors it is the strength of the individual’s social bond that helps explain the presence or absence of offending and, similarly, changes in individuals’ offending patterns over time reflects changes in the strength of the social bond in their lives. Their general thesis has three main elements. First, delinquency early in life (childhood and adolescence) is a product of the structural context in which young people grow up mediated by the social controls exerted by neighbourhood, family, school, and friends. Second, the patterns established in these early years tend to be fairly stable, just as the control systems affecting individuals tend p. 95to be; and, third, changing patterns of criminality over the later life course reflect the effectiveness of informal social bonds to family and employment.

In later work these authors have broadened their explanations of patterns of offending over the life course to take in such matters as personal agency and (situated) choice, routine activities, local cultures, and macro-level historical events. In focusing more particularly on local area effects—why the variations in the levels and patterns of crime in different places appear to be relatively stable—they introduce a number of other conceptual tools, such as collective efficacy and community capital. At heart, the arguments relate to the differential abilities of neighbourhoods to ‘realize the common values of residents and maintain effective social controls’. In this regard, social control does not refer to formal regulation or to the ‘forced conformity’ induced by institutions like the police and the courts but, rather, is a more general reference to the ability of a group to regulate its members according to particular norms and values. Just as in the earlier discussion of the major influences on the patterns of offending in the lives of individuals so, here, the same general point is being made in relation to the patterning of crime within different neighbourhoods. It is informal rather than formal social control that exerts the crucial influence. Although criminologists differ in their explanations of crime and criminality, few would demur from this general observation.

How do we control crime?

A historical perspective is always important for it gives the lie to easy assumption that the way we do things now is the same or similar to the ways we’ve always done things. In this context it helps remind us that the formal apparatuses we have designed for dealing with crime—police, courts, prisons, and so on—are actually a largely modern product and have been in existence in their current general form for little more than two centuries. p. 96These formal systems of justice also vary, sometimes quite considerably, according to the structure and culture of the societies in which they operate. For our purposes here, perhaps the most important lesson, and one with no little irony for the subject of criminology, is that the things that criminologists spend a very great deal of their time studying—the police, the courts system, prisons, and other institutions of formal criminal justice—are not thought to be the crucial determinants of the nature and level of crime.

Charles Tittle, quoted earlier, went so far as to suggest that ‘it looks as if objective, formal sanctions (or provisions for such) are actually largely irrelevant to general social control, at least in the direct, immediate sense’. ‘Irrelevant’ may be a little on the strong side, for it would be wrong to suggest that these institutions have no effect—of course they do—and they are anyway important social institutions worthy of careful academic scrutiny. But, we should note that both historically and currently, it is arguably the case that criminologists have tended to focus less on systems of informal social control than they deserve. Arguably the priority, therefore, is to try to ensure that such processes are brought fully into the centre of criminological concerns as well as to argue in support of resources and programmes that will help to reinforce those social institutions—families, schools, neighbourhoods, work, and so forth—that play the vital roles in creating and sustaining social integration and social solidarity.