The UK’s Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has repeated his contention first aired in late-June that crime rates are not directly linked to shifts in the numbers of people being imprisoned. In this more recent speech Clarke claimed that rising prosperity may have more effect on crime rates than penal policy. This is an interesting dimension to his argument, as it demonstrates a shift from quintessential Tory thinking on the liberal paradigm of the individual as a rational actor to a more structuralist interpretation which acknowledges the impact of the economy on individual action.
The debate regarding the effect of economic matters on criminality is often polarised along political lines, so Ken Clarke’s words are to be welcomed for re-opening this discussion. However, the notion that a prosperous society is one in which offending will decline is obviously a simplification, in that it is the level of equality in society that is most closely connected to criminal behaviour rather than wealth per se; this is most starkly evident in the US, where high GDP is matched by high rates of serious crime. This has prompted criminologists (like Merton, and more recently Messner and Rosenfeld) to focus on the strain caused by the prioritisation of wealth in US society, which is linked to the commission of crime. The lack of a structured and legitimate means for people to attain the ultimate goal of wealth and the institutional preference given to economic structures over other bodies and aims is correlated to crime levels. A linked notion is the idea of relative deprivation, where people feel resentment when they compare their position with those of others. Currie extended this line of thinking to blame the “market society” (where society is imbued with the principles of the free market) for causing violent crime. He claims that unregulated markets engender greed, selfishness and materialism; erode informal support networks; lead to the withdrawal of public services; and progressively destroy livelihoods, leading, in turn, to alienation and family problems, a lack of role models and an absence of any appropriate means of asserting masculinity.
The previous administration in the UK took something of a middle ground insofar as it recognised the problems caused by poverty including crime, but the vast majority of policies focused on individual responsibility and community structures rather than poverty itself. Clarke’s comments provide a rich opportunity to extend the debate towards equality rather than prosperity per se, and to consider the roles of institutions beyond the prison and indeed beyond the criminal justice system in preventing (re-)offending.
In the Irish context, much has been made in the media of the rise of serious and violent offending in the past decade, in particular drugs and gun related crime, and homicide, and the emphasis in popular and political debate is on the laws relating to police investigation and the need for robust sentences. A more explicit link to urban poverty and relative deprivation needs to be made in public policy in this respect. Social polarization grew rather than decreased with the wealth brought by the ‘Celtic Tiger’, and although the absolute poverty rate fell, relative poverty increased substantially. The divergence in wealth had substantial consequences for social cohesion, which is crucial in preventing increases in the homicide rate in times of economic inequality. In the United States, economic disadvantage is linked to all types of homicide and economic inequality is correlated strongly with violent firearm crimes. Research in England and Wales also indicates that gun crime is most prevalent in areas characterized by deprivation, unemployment and a visible criminal economy. In Ireland, gun and drug crime occurs predominantly in certain locations characterised by deprivation and relative poverty; the intersection of unemployment, poverty and an urban milieu seems most problematic in the creation of such criminality.
Economic theories of criminology often prompt wariness in the more classically minded reader who favour a rational actor interpretation of the individual. However, these economic ideas allow us to understand, but not absolve, the offender, and thereby begin to tackle crime adequately. Although a person may act criminally he doesn’t have the ability to alter the conditions and context in which he lives and operates – altering social and economic policy and conditions is the role of the State. Whether the administrations in the UK or in Ireland are capable of so doing, or indeed minded to do so, is another matter.