Crime and the recession. Is there a link?

Recessions cause harm in a number of ways, argues Richard Garside. It may be too early to tell whether the current recession will result in higher levels of crime in general, or violence in particular.

Richard Garside
Thursday, 14 July, 2011

The annual publication of official crime data has been a bit of a damp squib in recent years, at least as far as press and political interest is concerned. Crime falling is nowhere near as good a story as crime going up, and it has been falling, at least according to official measures, since the mid-1990s.

If today’s report has been more keenly anticipated this is partly because of concerns that the ongoing recession will result in rising crime rates.

So what does the report tell us? The authors are pretty clear on this point:

'Some commentators have been expecting to see rises in acquisitive crime due to the recent recession and the related rise in unemployment. However, despite difficult economic conditions these latest statistics show no consistent evidence of upward pressure across the range of acquisitive crime.'

The reference to a ‘the range of acquisitive crime’ is an important qualification. More on this in a moment. First, a few qualifications.

The statistics released today tell us many interesting things. They do not, however, offer a reliable source of information on all crime. The report authors are also clear on this point:

'taking the broadest definition of crime, the main BCS and Recorded Crime statistics only cover a fraction of total criminal behaviour'.

I made much the same argument some years ago and was rather taken to task for doing so by Labour ministers and their advisors at the time. It is good to see this basic and rather important point now being officially acknowledged.

The authors also point out that the ‘definition of crime itself is not as straightforward as may appear’. They do not argue that crime does not exist in a meaningful sense. There are good reasons for concluding this however, as I have previously argued.

These important qualifications made, the most striking statistic for me is the rise in homicide, up four percent from last year from 618 to 642 (p.17). Previous research by Professor Danny Dorling pointed to the strong correlation between recessions and increases in homicide rates. It is much too early to tell whether the rise highlighted today is part of a longer-term, and similar trend. But it is suggestive. And while today’s publication is relatively dismissive of talk of links between burglary and the recession, the apparent rise in levels after a number of years of falling trends may not be entirely coincidental.

Recessions can also cause harm in other ways. A letter to The Lancet last week pointed to the impact of the current recession on suicide rates. The impact of the recession and austerity on housing security, employability, poverty and health is also likely to be serious.

As is often the case with crime talk, a narrow focus on legally defined harms risks ignoring a much bigger, and ultimately more important, set of issues.