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Crime and Punishment: Deterrents Work

The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, has asked for harsher sentences to fight crime — if Australia is anything to go by, he might have a point.

You might be surprised to hear that, according to ABS figures, the level of crime in Australia has halved in the last decade. Why? Perhaps because we are spending proportionately more on our police force and we’re putting more people in prison. Better policing and a stronger deterrent might just be working, despite the protestations from talkback callers that high migration leads to crime.

At the turn of the century the annual rate of theft, assault, blackmail and break-ins was 67 per 1,000 people. Or, to put it
another way, each year there was a 1 in 15 chance of being a victim of one of those crimes. Now, the likelihood is 1 in 29 — the rate has practically halved. Although figures from the Attorney-General’s Department tell us that the Australian Federal Police has seen its budget triple over the decade in real terms. We’ve also seen the proportion of prisoners increase from 1.13 per thousand people up to 1.32 per thousand — a 17 percent increase.

So maybe it does some good to get tough on crime. In light of the recent riots, you could argue that Britain should try the same
approach — except they have and, until this month, it had been working. Crime rates there have been on the slide since a peak in the mid ’90s and the prison population has doubled since the early ’90s —1.47 people per thousand are incarcerated.

It seems public perception and reality are at odds. We assume crime is rising, when it’s in decline. South Africa had a somewhat deluded perception about their own crime levels when it issued a warning against travel to the UK. If you live in South Africa you’re generally safer out of the country — their homicide rate is 34 per 100 thousand people, in the US it’s 5, and in Britain and Australia it’s around 1.3 (and declining). Armed robberies in Australia have fallen a third in the last decade, to about 15 a day.

Whilst Australia can congratulate itself on reducing the rate of crime, we should be aware that the pattern of crime is
shifting. There’s probably less incentive to break into a house these days, because it’s harder to flog your spoils without getting caught. If someone nicks my iPad, for example, I can go online and track it.

These days, for serious money-making, blackmail and extortion is the method of choice; admittedly we’re talking hundreds not
thousands of reported cases (although perhaps you’re less likely to report blackmail), but it has almost doubled in the last decade. Perhaps the UK will see a blip in this category as News of the World phone tappers find themselves out of a job, searching for a new career.

Finally, to help you sleep easily tonight, some crime facts to consider, based on the charges against those currently in prison:

  • violent crime in the Territory is twice the Aussie average
  • sexual assaults are 65 percent higher than NSW in Queensland and SA
  • theft in WA is half the national average
  • the rate of drug offences in NSW is 10 times higher than in Tasmania
  • the murder rate in Tasmania is twice that of NSW

On the last two points it’s somewhat reassuring to know that, if someone tries to kill you in Tassie, it’s not the drugs talking. They really do want you dead.

Data sources:

First published on CBS News

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