Crime and social justice

Richard Garside
Thursday, 23 February 2006

In a recent newspaper article the front-bench Conservative MP and former Spectator editor Boris Johnson reflected on class divisions in contemporary British society. 'The real divide,' he observed, 'is between the entire class of people now reposing their fat behinds on the green and red benches in the Palace of Westminster, and the bottom 20 per cent of society'. This bottom 20 per cent, he continued, 'supplies us with the chavs, the losers, the burglars, the drug addicts and the 70,000 people who are lost in our prisons and learning nothing except how to become more effective criminals' (Johnson 2005).

'Residuum' was the term coined by earlier generations to describe this layer of seemingly indolent undesirables from whom most criminals were deemed to spring. These days 'underclass', or the more politically respectable 'socially excluded,' are the preferred descriptors. Terminology aside, the association between socio-economic position and criminality remains. 'Crime', as the Social Exclusion Unit website puts it, is 'disproportionately committed by people from socially excluded backgrounds'. The SEU goes on to list problems of 'unemployment, education and training, substance misuse, housing, mental and physical health, attitudes and self-control, institutionalisation, debt and family breakdown' as among the 'causes of crime'.

What are we to make of this? Are criminality and social disadvantage related? If so, what is the nature of that relationship? And what should be the appropriate criminal justice response?

Offender profiling

Let us start with some of the known facts about those convicted offenders who end up in prison. An SEU report published in 2002 examined some key characteristics of prisoners. It found all the markers of a profoundly vulnerable and needy layer in British society. Compared with the general population, the report found that prisoners were far more likely to have been taken into care as children; to have truanted or been excluded from school; to have experienced long periods of unemployment; to have been homeless; or to have been in receipt of benefits. They were more likely to have left school with no qualifications and their literacy and numeracy skills were far lower than the general population. They were also more likely to be users of illegal drugs and to have suffered from a range of mental health problems.

Similar patterns emerge when a broader range of convicted offenders are examined. A Home Office White Paper published in February 2001 - Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead - included an estimate of what it termed the 'active offender population', those individuals likely to pick up a number of convictions over a relatively short period of time. The White Paper estimated that there 'are about a million active offenders in the general population at any one time'. Of these, some 100,000 'persistent offenders' are 'responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime'. They also share 'a common profile':

Half are under 21 and nearly three-quarters started offending between 13 and 15. Nearly two thirds are hard drug users. More than a third were in care as children. Half have no qualifications at all and nearly half have been excluded from school. Three-quarters have no work and little or no legal income.

The apparently strong correlation of personal, social and economic factors with criminality has proved remarkably influential in government circles. 'You don't have to be an expert on crime to know its causes are woven into the very fabric of our society,' the Prime Minister observed at the launch of the 2001 White Paper. Among the causes he listed were family breakdown, unemployment, poor education, drugs, and teenage pregnancies (Blair 2001). More than three years later the Home Office Strategic Plan for 2004-2008 struck a similar note. 'There are a number of well-known risk factors that correlate with offending', it claimed. 'They include low income, low educational attainment and poor parenting, among others' (Home Office 2004).

The result has been an array of policies and interventions targeted at that layer of society from whence so many criminals are deemed to spring. So we have initiatives like Sure Start, New Deal for Communities, welfare to work and neighbourhood renewal, all justified as much for their impact on crime as for their potency in tackling social exclusion. They are, the Prime Minister explained in the above mentioned speech, 'our crime-fighting strategy for tackling the 97% of crime that never gets to the courts. For heading off crime before it happens. For identifying those people sliding into a life of crime, and giving them an alternative.'

For the remaining three percent of crime that apparently does get to court, the government places a big emphasis on the role of the criminal justice system in reforming and rehabilitating offenders, addressing those factors that may have contributed to an individual's offending.

So the Home Secretary told a Prison Reform Trust meeting last September that prisons should be 'institutions that ensure offenders become working and productive members of society upon release', rather than 'universities of crime' (Clarke 2005). The former Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service, Martin Narey, was even more up-front in a Foreword he wrote for a recently-published book on prison. Imprisonment, he wrote, 'can be beneficial in the right circumstances. For a young man leading an utterly chaotic life, deeply addicted to drugs, unemployed and unemployable as well as being homeless, prison can provide a vital respite and a chance to start again' (Narey 2005).

What should we make of this? On the face of it, the government's logic appears impeccable. If most crime is committed by the socially excluded, then it makes sense to place the tackling of social exclusion high in the priority list of the criminal justice system. If most criminals are going to wash up in the criminal justice system at some point, it would be a criminal waste of public money, as well as socially unjust, simply to seek to punish them.

Impeccable though this logic may appear it is deeply flawed.

Varieties of crime and criminalities 'Crime' covers a wide range of behaviours, from the serious and profoundly harmful (sexual assaults or mass fraud) to the petty and minor (filching office stationery or jaywalking). Some crime, such as murder, is very rare; crimes such as theft, interpersonal violence or health and safety breaches are far more common. In the face of such multiplicity and complexity, to assume clear causal links between social disadvantage and crime in toto makes little sense.

A drug-dependant pauper might burgle or thieve to fund his habit, and in this case it makes sense to speak of his disadvantage as being related to his offending. Disadvantage will less likely explain the respectable local bank manager embezzling her savers' accounts, never mind the massive frauds associated with Enron or Robert Maxwell.

Stockbrokers may not generally mug fellow passengers for their mobile phones on the commute back to Berkshire following a hard day's work in the office. Yet they may still routinely fleece their clients or indulge in insider dealing. Some of these white collar crooks may feel badly off in comparison to their superannuated bosses. They may feel that in the dog-eat-dog world of the City their £80,000 a year before bonuses is hardly a reflection of their manifold talents and abilities. But they are unlikely to feature as the subject of a Social Exclusion Unit report.

Many millions of apparently law-abiding people will admit to paying cash-in-hand to avoid tax; padding insurance claims or keeping money when given too much change. Some may have bent the rules to get out of a tight financial spot. More often these are merely the scams of the comfortably-off middle classes.

This means that crime and criminality are far more widespread and common than is popularly thought. A Home Office study published in 2000 estimated that more than 60 million offences were committed in the year 1999/2000, some five to six times as many offences as were reported by the official statistics (Brand and Price 2000). A Strategy Unit report the Prime Minister's former 'blue skies thinker,' Lord Birt, estimated that at least 130 million serious offences may have been committed in a single year. A more recent Home Office study estimated that nearly 4 million people aged 10 to 65 in England and Wales were 'active' offenders, and nearly one million were 'serious' offenders (Budd, Sharp and Mayhew 2005). Both Home Office studies based their calculations of a fairly narrow range of offences, and neither covered Scotland nor Northern Ireland, so the true figure for crime and criminality in the UK must certainly be higher.

This introduces important caveats into any attempt to develop policy based on a putative link between crime, criminality and disadvantage. If crime is common and everyday, it seems unlikely that criminal justice interventions will have a determinative influence on its levels and fluctuations. If a significant proportion of the population, from all social positions, are actively engaged in some form of criminality, the assumption that criminal behaviour is largely the preserve of a couple of hundred thousand largely poor people seems unlikely.

It should not surprise us that it is mostly the poor and disadvantaged criminals who end up in the coils of the criminal justice system. For the function of criminal justice has always been to regulate largely the activities of the poor and marginalised. But it would be an elementary mistake to make bold assertions about the nature of crime and criminality, its causes and solutions, by fixating on those individuals who end up in our police cells, courtrooms and prisons.

At best, then, we can speak of the linkages between disadvantage and certain forms of crime and criminality. And we should not assume that such crime is necessarily the most widespread, nor the most harmful. Indeed, an investigation into the links between prosperity, prosperous individuals and crime would likely spark some interesting and thought-provoking conclusions regarding both incidence and harmfulness. The pensions and mortgage 'mis-selling' scandals of recent years spring to mind.

Crime and disadvantage

To understand better the links between some types of crime, criminality and disadvantage, let us start by comparing UK rates for certain crime types with those of other European countries. According to the International Crime Victimisation Survey (ICVS), the closest thing there is to a useable measure of certain crimes across countries and continents, England, Wales and Scotland had some of the highest rates for some crimes in 1999. Taking an aggregate measure of all the crime types measured by the ICVS, England and Wales' 55 incidents per 100 inhabitants meant that it topped the list for rates of victimisation by a range of crimes including burglary, car theft, sexual and physical assault. Scotland was fifth, with 41 incidents. Denmark and France registered lower rates (35 and 34 respectively), as did Finland (29).

No single pattern emerges from a comparison of criminal justice interventions and victimisation rates. Portugal has a far higher proportion of police to civilians than does England, Scotland and Wales, and a much lower victimisation rate. Those who consider this a good argument in favour of more police might want to look at Denmark and Finland. Both countries have lower victimisation rates, fewer police and much lower rates of imprisonment. Scotland and Poland have comparable victimisation rates, but divergent policing and imprisonment rates. And this suggests that there is no clear relationship between levels of crime and victimisation, and criminal justice policies.

Looking more closely at particular crime categories, the ICVS suggests that the UK jurisdictions had much higher rates of assaults and threats in 1999 than many other European countries. The incidence rate for England, Wales and Scotland was between ten and 12 incidents per 100 inhabitants, significantly greater than rates for countries as diverse as Sweden, France, Belgium and Denmark. These latter countries typically measured four to seven incidents per 100 inhabitants.

A common factor among most of those countries with higher violence rates is high rates of poverty and income inequality. The internationally recognised Luxembourg Income Study calculated that 21 per cent of the UK population in 1999 were living in households whose income was less than 60 per cent of median earnings. In contrast, those countries with lower rates of violence tend to have a lower proportion of households living in poverty. Some 13 per cent of German households lived on less than 60 per cent of median earnings in 2000. In Sweden, the figure was 12 per cent, in Belgium 16 per cent and in Finland 12 per cent.

This correlation is suggestive. But that is all. It is based on snapshot data over a couple of years, so tells us nothing of trends. Comparing crime rates across different countries and jurisdictions is also notoriously difficult. To get a better sense of possible correlations between rates of certain crimes and levels of disadvantage, we need to look at trend data.

The British Crime Survey (BCS) has measured victimisation rates for certain crimes in England and Wales since 1981. It recorded a steady increase in the crimes it measures from around 11 million in 1981 to just under 20 million in 1995. Since then the trend has been a downward one. In 1997 the figure stood at nearly 17 million. The most recent survey, covering the 2004/05 period, estimated the number of crimes at just under 11 million, back to where it stood in 1981.

What might be behind these significant fluctuations in BCS crime levels. For those who support the 'prison works' maxim they make for compelling reading. Between 1993 and 2003 the prison population rose nearly 30,00 from some 44,500 to around 73,600. This coincided with a fall in BCS-measured crime, from 18.5 million offences in 1993 to 11.7 million by 2003/04. Put another way, BCS crime fell by around a third in England and Wales at the same time as the prison population increased by two-thirds.

I have set out elsewhere reasons for being sceptical about this line of argument (Garside 2005). The more interesting question is whether these fluctuating crime and victimisation rates are linked to changing rates of poverty and disadvantage.

One pattern that does emerge from the BCS is the greater vulnerability to crime and victimisation faced by certain groups. After young men the next highest risk group are the unemployed. Those living in private rented or social housing are also among those facing an elevated risk. Factors that increase the risk of burglary and theft include unemployment, living in private rented accommodation and living in a household with an average income of less than £5,000 per annum. By comparison the wealthy face a below average risk of victimisation.

Joan Smith's point some years ago that it is often dangerous and sometimes lethal simply to be a woman in British society is also born out by the BCS. A detailed analysis of domestic violence data reveals that women are far more likely to be victims than men. Women living in poor households are more likely to victimised by domestic violence than any other group.

If the poor are more likely to be victims of certain types of crime than the rich, it would follow that a society in which more people are getting poor will also be one in which certain types of crime are on in the increase.

Nowhere does the impact of poverty on crime and victimisation become clearer than in the case of murder. Between January 1981 and December 2000 approximately 13,140 people were murdered in Britain. A study published by the Crime and Society Foundation in 2005 undertook a detailed analysis of who was murdered, when, where and how they were murdered, and why they were murdered (Dorling 2005). Through such an analysis the underlying causes of murder, rather than their superficial ones, become clearer.

Over the twenty years covered by the analysis just under two murders were committed per day. Men were more likely to be murdered than women, and young men most likely to be murdered of all. Significantly, the rate of murder increased as the 1980s rolled into the 1990s.

This increased rate of murder has not been distributed evenly across the population. Since 1981 the risk of being murdered increased for men, but decreased for women. But the strongest determinant of an individual's likelihood of being murdered was poverty. The risk of being murdered decreased for the rich, but increased for the poor. Indeed the rise in murder in Britain was concentrated almost exclusively in men of working age living in the poorest parts of the country who grew up in the era of mass unemployment that was the 1980s.

Violent death is comparatively rare in the UK. A wider range of violence and social harms are far more common. And these depredations are themselves but part of a wider network of socio-structural forces that blight the lives of those people living in the poorest areas of all the developed countries. So it is that the average life expectancy of the poorest is five to 15 years shorter than the richest. `This huge loss of life,' Richard Wilkinson writes in his recent book, The Impact of Inequality, `reflecting the very different social and economic circumstances in which people live, stands as a stark abuse of human rights... [and calls] into question the humanity, morality and values of modern societies' (Wilkinson 2005).

What role criminal justice?

Our examination of the links between criminality and disadvantage has suggested that some poor and disadvantaged people do commit crime because they are poor and disadvantaged. Some of them end up in our prisons and courts as a result.

This does not mean that most crime is committed by the poor and disadvantaged. Nor does it mean that disadvantage is the cause of most crime. But some of the grossest victimisations are concentrated among the poorer members of society, and it is reasonable to conclude that the poor will often be perpetrators as well as victims.

Two broad policy trajectories flow from this. The first would seek to use criminal justice mechanisms to achieve social justice: target the offender, address their offending behaviour, incapacitate the most persistent, send the rest on their way. This `offender-focused' approach very much reflects current government thinking, but it systematically ignores the broader social and economic context within which crime, criminality and victimisation unfold. Pursued rigorously it would probably result in far more CEOs than burglars populating our prison cells. That the opposite is the case tells us much about the systematic biases of our current criminal processes, and the degree to which criminal justice is inimitable to social justice.

The second would start by emphasising the fundamental difference between criminal justice and social justice; that the former is not a means of delivering the latter. This `victim-focused' approach would actively eschew criminal justice mechanisms in favour a broad-based drive to tackle poverty and inequality at a systemic level and in a systematic way. For if the cause of vulnerability to certain crimes and a wider array of social harms is poverty and inequality, it is here that the policy focus should be.

Such an approach would not mean the dissolution of the criminal justice system, but it would imply its radical scaling back, and an infusion of it by genuinely humane principles. It would also imply the scaling up of a range of intermediate institutions, such as mediation services, to help citizens to resolve problems informally and quickly. But fundamentally it would mean acknowledging that social justice can only truly be achieved if society's social and economic arrangements are themselves organised justly.

This article was published in the book `Social Justice: Criminal Justice' (2006) by The Smith Institute. Click here to download the full publication.


Blair, T. (2001), `Speech at the Peel Institute'. February 28.

Brand, S., and Price, R. (2000), `The economic and social costs of crime'. Home Office Research Study 217. London: Home Office.

Budd, T., Sharp, C., and Mayhew, P. (2005), `Offending in England and Wales: First results from the Crime and Justice Survey'. Home Office Research Study 275. London: Home Office.

Clarke, C. (2005), `Where next for penal policy?'. Speech to the Prison Reform Trust. September 19.

Dorling, D. (2005), `Prime Suspect: Murder in Britain.' In Hillyard, P., Pantazis, C., Tombs, S., Gordon, D., and Dorling D. (2005), Criminal Obsessions: Why harm matters more than crime. London: Crime and Society Foundation.

Garside, R. (2005) `Wrong question; wrong answer'. Prison Service Journal, Issue 161.

Home Office (2001), Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead. Cm 5074. London: Home Office.

Home Office (2004), Confident Communities in a Secure Britain: The Home Office Strategic Plan 2004-08. Cm 6287. London: Home Office.

Johnson, B. (2005), `The poor are being robbed in Labour's class war'. The Daily Telegraph, December 8.

Narey, M. (2005), `Foreword'. In Emsley, C. (ed), The Persistent Prison: Problems, Images and Alternatives. London: Francis Boutle Publishers.

Social Exclusion Unit (2002), Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners. London: Social Exclusion Unit.

Wilkinson, R. (2005), The Impact of Inequality: How to make sick societies healthier. London: Routledge.