Crime, poverty and place

Professor Danny Dorling
Tuesday, 27 June 2006

I have to start with a confession. I am a charlatan. I know a little about place, less about poverty, and very little about crime. That, I’m afraid is the bad news for you this evening. The good news is that I have only been asked to talk for half an hour and will stick to that to try to conceal the full extent of my ignorance of crime. I do also have a central argument to make and so will state it here and come back to it in conclusion:

The poorer the place you live in the more likely you are to be a victim of crime. You are also generally more likely to be a victim of acts of harm that are not usually considered as crimes. Our debate on crime needs to widen to remember all victims who are unjustly robbed of their possessions, and even of their lives; both here and abroad through the violation of political or moral law. And we need to look towards the future to see how much of what we currently tolerate, we may soon begin to recognise as criminal.

By now you are probably asking yourself how someone who has carried out as little work as I have on crime comes to be giving this lecture and comes to have strong views on harm. The answer is related to ignorance, how little we know about some aspects of crime and the repulsion many social researchers have to studying crime. A decade ago I was asked by colleagues at the University of Bristol to contribute to a conference on harm – attempting to widen the horizons of criminology and bring in other social sciences to the study of harm. I was the token human geographer. At the time I was looking at inequalities in health, which had reached unprecedented levels then. I thought of giving some vague talk on how the inequalities in health we get, as reflected in premature death, are a reflection of the degree of social harm we are collectively willing to live with. However, and perhaps luckily, I failed to get round to putting my thoughts together. Instead I noticed that there was a cause of premature mortality in the records that quite unambiguously implied harm. Known as mortality codes E960 To E969 (and E988.8!). And so I did what I usually do the day before a talk. I drew half a dozen graphs of this cause of death and took them to the conference. I labelled them Exhibits 1 to 6 and I’ll show you them in a moment. Before that I should point out that in the intervening ten years I have had time to look a little more carefully at these graphs, to think a little more about crime, and to work with colleagues on this: Helena Tunstall, Mary Shaw and Bethan Thomas in particular (almost none of what I will show you is all my own work). As a result of that additional work; chapters, papers and a pamphlet were published, and I now know more about the nuances of how (and when) a body comes to be labelled as murder/manslaughter victim, but the essentials of what I learnt did not change from that one set of graphs, now updated to the end of 2002. An evidence based who-done-it. In short the exhibits try to answer six questions:

Show Exhibits 1 to 6 here, the summary of what they each imply is that:
1. Q. Who was murdered? A: Mainly young men (mode is as young as age 21).
2. Q. When were they murdered? A: Twice as many now as when I was born.
3. Q. Who + When? A: Fewer women (all ages), all the rise is in young men.
4. Q. Where? A: Six times more in the poorest areas. Rates fell in the richest.
5. Q. With what? A: cutting, but more fire-arms (and poison) in affluent areas.
6. Q. Why? A: collectively they were in the wrong place, born at the wrong time.

Show Exhibit 7 here – a slide used by a well know politician that may frighten you.

Earlier I mentioned the repulsion that many social researchers interested in society and life chances appear to have to studying crime. For a quantitative geographer there are practical reasons to avoid mapping crime. These include the complexity of county court areas, police beat boundaries, police force areas and all the changes to those boundaries over time. But that is not the underlying reason, I think, for the general repulsion. The repulsion comes from a wish not to stigmatise, not to preach delinquency, not to the “blame the victims”, the perpetrators who are often the same social groups as the victims. There is also, I think, a desire amongst many researchers not to simply state the obvious. The majority of variation in your risk of being a victim/perpetrator of a conventional crime can be accounted for geographically by poverty. Those living in poorer areas make up the bulk of the victims of robbery, burglary and murder. I have drawn a couple more graphs, in too hasty preparation for this talk, just to check that assertion. Note, on these, that the cities are defined by their actual urban boundary – not their administrative boundary (and only English cities are included). In brief they show that:

Show exhibits 8 to 11 here which imply in summary that:
1. Put crudely, as the poverty rate of a city doubles the burglary rate doubles.
2. However, there are very wide variations between the poorest areas.
3. Even more roughly, robbery rates double as poverty does.
4. But with more variation again.

When looking at robbery you have to remember that we are not allowing for the day-time population of places. Nor, of course, are we attempting to account for the differential zeal of differing police forces in recording each incident as a crime. Nor again, with robbery (and burglary) did we worry about the lack of reporting by those without insurance and hence the incentive to report. When you begin to look into it you begin to realise that murder is one of the simpler or crimes, especially if studied through the records of coroners courts and death certificates; assuming, all along, that the murderer is not the one who writes those death certificates.

I am not going to talk about Shipman. But I am going to mention that large majority of people who are directly and often criminally killed by others in Britain, but whose deaths are not recorded as murder. This is because I want to focus the remainder of this talk not on the conventional crimes that make the headlines. Not on murder, robbery and burglary. But on those crimes that do not sell newspapers. On those forms of harm where it is not currently clear that they are crimes. And on what proportion of violent harm and potential robbery is currently inflicted legally.

Show Exhibit 12: Road deaths worldwide by country- explain cartogram

For every person whose death is recorded as a homicide in Britain some 4 or 5 more are killed on the roads. The current rate is the lowest rate for at least four decades and one of the lowest rates of such deaths in the rich world. Our reaction to that should not be to celebrate such a low risk – but to be appalled that we are living with this degree of risk and that this appears to be as low as it can get (almost anywhere!). Road deaths are not an act of god. Many result in criminal proceedings, and drink and drugs often play a part. We make a huge distinction as to whether a young man is killed by another young man stabbing him during a fight after a night’s drinking, or by a stranger ploughing a tonne of metal into him “by accident”. To the young man, he is dead regardless. To those who knew him and loved him, he is gone regardless. The distinction would not be made so strongly if driving a car was not seen as respectable, in a way that carry a knife is not. Incidentally, if you have children, it is those of you who live in the leafier suburbs, or in the more affluent countryside, who should be most fearful. Where the pavements are missing, the lighting is poor, the roads are fast and the congestion low. If your child is killed by a stranger that stranger will almost certainly be behind the wheel of a car and will have had no thought of becoming a killer that day. Internationally a million people are killed on the roads worldwide every year. A number set to grow exponentially in the near future.


Now for something a little lighter, in the conclusion to the booklet “Criminal Obsessions: Why harm matters more than crime” the authors argued that:

“…given that one of the most prevalent ‘crimes’ in the UK is ‘failure
to pay the TV licence’ while the most common crime in Turkey
is ‘being rude to a public official’, there is not even a theoretical
prospect of being able to make meaningful international
comparisons of the extent of crime, except in relation to a
relatively small sub-set of ‘crimes’.”

Crimes are not only place specific. What is a crime in one location – for instance parking on the verge outside my house, is not a crime in another. They are also time specific. Last year you could legally park on the verge outside my house. On my street in Sheffield the law has been changed.

Show Exhibit 13: Are bank charges Legal?

My current favourite example of an activity possibly becoming a crime relates to bank charges. If you are wondering how this related to poverty and place then think for a minute which people currently pay the bulk of bank and overdraft charges, where they live and, in contrast where and in what style the share-holders (often via pension funds) and managers of our most profitable financial institutions tend to live.

Over the last few weeks various stories have circulated in the press suggesting that one interpretation of an OFT ruling is that bank charges and possibly also overdraft interest charges are an illegal penalty because they do not reflect the actual costs to the banks of dealing with customers becoming overdrawn.

Show Exhibit 14 here: One suggested template letter to write to your bank.

Sadly I suspect that in the very near future we will not see profiteering made illegal. However, it is worth considering the extent to which we should expect the world, and our collective opinions of crime, to be very different in the not so distant future. To try to help illustrate that, think back 75 years, to 1931, when the Institute for the Scientific Study and Treatment of Delinquency, the precursor to the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, was founded and how then we thought of crime, criminals, and human rights. In 1931 we had, and used, a death penalty. Something now outlawed across all of Europe (a Europe we could not have imagined in 1931). Trying to think forward to 2081 is very difficult. The best way I can think of attempting to illustrate how very differently we may think then, as compared to now, is to use the example of who we are beginning to see as human.

Seventy five years ago eugenics were still popular. It was known that the vast bulk of the world’s population lived in poverty and it was commonly assumed that such was the natural condition of ‘man’. Now we have a United Nations – the main preoccupation of which is alleviating world poverty, a preoccupation that would have been almost impossible to imagine seventy five years ago (or even when the UN was formed). In trying to imagine by just how much views may change by 2081, think back to the issue of bank charges, and making a profit for doing almost nothing. Think back also to the images of a few celebrities clicking their fingers every three seconds on national television and in cinema adverts a year or so ago. And then consider a few images…

Exhibits 15 to 20 accompany the commentary that follows:

Images of where the 3.3 million babies are born stillborn every year, of where a further 3 million die within their first seven days of life, 4.2 million within the next year and a further 3.2 million before they reach their fifth birthday. Almost all of these millions of young deaths a year are avoidable. Look then at who makes a net profit of over $46 billion a year selling medicines, most of which are unaffordable to those who most need them. And finally look to whom (via where) almost all the royalties and licences fees in the future will flow to ($84bn) – profit that now requires the recipients to do almost nothing to collect. I find it hard to imagine that any of this will be legal in another seventy five years time.

(Almost) Finally I want to take you back to what we find acceptable, unacceptable and what causes most harm, and the story of murder that we began with. I also want to ask you to try to imagine what will be seen in seventy five years time as harm when people look back on 2006. Recently our law was changed to make it possible to convict people for certain offences committed overseas. Again, we change what is criminal. In that context I would like to know the following, and I do not see why these figures should not be available and be compared:

1. How many people are killed overseas by British citizens?
2. What proportion of those citizens were in uniform?
3. How many of their victims were children?

Whether the steel that kills is the blade of a knife in a pub, the bumper and bonnet of a car or the shrapnel from a round that goes ‘astray’, the harm is done and the loss is there. However, only a small minority of the lethal harm that we collectively cause, most abroad, is so obviously and clearly brutal. The bulk of the harm we may indirectly be culpable of is a little more subtly delivered.

In future I do not find it impossible to imagine that reparations will be demanded for the lives lost when a drug was priced high enough to secure the managing directors of a pharmaceutical company enough profit to buy their yachts, or that our pension schemes remain in balance. Imagine telling someone in 1931 that one day there would be law suits over the harm done through profiting from selling tobacco? Or that the day would come when the legality of bank charges would be questioned? Or that we would no longer believe that there were a class of people who were naturally delinquent? Or that we would not see the harm that is increasingly concentrated amongst particularly poor groups in particular places as inevitable?  

The vast majority of people suffering because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time were not born in Britain and are not suffering in Britain – but we in Britain are far from being innocent bystanders to that harm. Often we profit from its existence, and we offer very little to aid its alleviation. I’ll end with one image of what may, by 2081, be come to be seen as an international crime when the full impact of the failure to provide 3 million people with antiretroviral treat by the end of 2005 is fully realised. This was the “3 by 5” promise you may or may not have heard of, a precursor perhaps for what we should expect of the millennium development goals.

If selling cigarettes without warning is now seen as illegal, nationally – how will not supplying drugs that could have preserved life be viewed in seventy five years time?

Show Final Exhibit: 21 – the distribution of HIV/AIDS worldwide.

While you are considering who benefits and who is harmed by the international trade in medicines. Who is most robbed, how, and from where? How most lives that are ended violently do end in this country – and how that epidemic is spreading with the motor-car worldwide – albeit at currently “only” a million a year rather than three? I’ll leave with you with proposition I made at the beginning and ask again just how fanciful it is to argue that:

1) The poorer the place you live in - the more likely you are to be a victim of crime; 2) – often also of those acts of harm that are often not seen as crimes.
3) Our debate on crime needs to widen to remember all victims who are unjustly robbed of their possessions, and even of their lives; both here and abroad through the violation of political or moral law;
4) and we need to look towards the future to see how much of what we currently tolerate, we may soon begin to recognise as criminal.