Investing in prevention can cut violence

Populist calls for more police cannot deliver popular reductions in violence, argue Irvin Waller and Jeffrey Bradley

By: 
Irvin Waller and Jeffrey Bradley
Date: 
Thursday, 27 July, 2017

Populist calls for more police and punishment are problematic for those of us fighting to protect victims from violence. They are a dangerous opiate for the masses that distorts sound government, widens social gaps, and leads to more street and gender violence.

Forty years of criminal justice bills and efforts to expand policing and prisons has left the USA with criminal justice taxes per capita that exceed those of any other G7 country. Their criminal justice system is described by democrat politicians as broken at the same time as staggering proportion of young poor males are dying on their streets or languishing their lives behind their bars.

In her recent article in The Independent, 'Criminal justice after austerity: are there radical possibilities?', Rebecca Roberts called rightly for a shift in spending from the police to public services that reduce harm and meet the needs of individuals and communities. The artice also stated, rightly, that the populist expedience of Corbyn would not deliver greater community safety. In fact, the opportunity cost of misspending would do the opposite.

It is just this kind of expedient populism from Republican Presidents and then President Bill Clinton that got the USA to where it is today. The USA is the G7 country with a national rate of incarceration of 700 per 100,000; more than four times that of England and Wales and nine times that of Germany. In major part because of these populist policies, it is also the G7 country with a murder rate per 100,000, four times higher than that of England and Wales and six times higher than Germany.

Smarter crime control

This is the 21st century. So let's use 21st century knowledge – not 19th century prejudice – to solve 21st century problems. That knowledge – while ignored by Mr. Corbyn – is easily accessible on the internet from user-friendly websites managed by the World Health Organization, the US Department of Justice, and even, to a limited extent, the British College of Policing.

To make it easier for Mr Corbyn and politicians, one of us wrote the book on Smarter Crime Control as a guide to a safer future for citizens, communities, and politicians. Each chapter uses the most reliable sources to conclude with actions that politicians can take to reduce victimization.

The evidence is conclusive that the equivalent of 10 per cent of what we are currently spending on reaction could be invested to reduce rates of violence by 50 per cent or more within the next five years.

It concluded that if cities want to reduce crime and improve community safety, they have to focus on addressing the root causes through evidence-based social crime prevention programs and strategies. These include:

Comprehensive community safety strategies

Cities reduce crime when they develop comprehensive community safety strategies based on diagnosing problems, planning solutions, investing in what is cost-effective, and evaluating outcomes in terms of less victimization.

One example of a city wide multi-sectoral strategy that adapted a public health approach was Glasgow Scotland’s violence reduction unit. Glasgow reduced its homicide rate by about 50 per cent in five years by using some smart policing techniques to stop people from carrying knives and smart prevention programs that focus on early childhood education, parenting, youth conflict resolution in schools, street outreach, rehabilitation and treatment, and interventions in hospitals to mentor people out of violence.

It is also important to improve long-term social protection policies by stimulating job growth, food security, housing, basic incomes, poverty reduction, education, and health care.

The recent review in the UK by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation concluded that the rise and fall of crime rates, before and after the 1990s, was related to the decrease and then increase in the job prospects of young, unskilled men.

This is particularly important, as the predictions are that technology will replace a lot of unskilled jobs. It also concluded that if 'UK inequality was reduced to the median level seen in the developed OECD countries', then there would be 33 per cent fewer murders and 37 per cent fewer people would be incarcerated.

The inequalities can be reduced if accessibility to the market is more readily available for people. Prevention programs focused on improving job skills and training are one way for young people to feel more connected and to increase their social capital through relationships.

Tackling problems upstream

The evidence is clear that the most effective and cost effective way to avoid harm to victims of crime is prevention. All the rest is picking up the pieces.

In fact, smart investments in the alternatives that are evidence-based would save lives, stop victimization, and avoid wasteful spending. This means less harm to victims – fewer rape victims, fewer young disadvantaged victims of assault, fewer victims of theft and robbery.

Importantly also for social-democrat politicians, the actions proven effective invest in improving the lives of young people, young women and children, and stopping gender violence. 

The radical solution that we need from responsible and honest politicians is investing in what works to stop violent victimization. It is actually not so radical as it is already agreed by governments in the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

By tackling the causes and risk factors 'upstream', before violence happens, we can afford to deliver safer homes, schools, and lives to all.


Irvin Waller is a full professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa and author of Smarter Crime Control (2013)
Jeffrey Bradley is a masters’ student studying Criminology at the University of Ottawa