Politicians, particularly conservative politicians, are constantly talking up the need for more police and more prison places, and generally being tougher on crime. They are being dishonest and they know it. These campaigns are based on cultivating fear, and have nothing to do with the real situation.
The Hon. Christine Wheeler QC is a former judge of the Supreme Court of Western Australia who is trying to promote constructive public debate about crime. In a recent article, she lists these facts:
• Most people think the crime rate is higher than it is, especially for violent offences, and overestimate the likelihood of becoming victims themselves;
• Crime is believed to be increasing, when it is on the whole decreasing;
• Rates of imprisonment in WA are very high, by world and Australian standards, and going up;
• Imprisonment costs the community a lot of money;
• Imprisonment generally does not prevent crime, and may tend to increase it;
• There are effective ways to prevent crime, and to treat many criminals, and people generally would like to see more expenditure in these directions; and
• When ordinary people, including victims of crime, are given all the facts of an offence (as opposed to a brief media report) they generally think the sentence imposed by the court is either about right, or a bit harsh. That is, current sentencing is far from “soft”.
Uniview, The University of Western Australia, Summer 2011-12, page 38
The impression that the media gives is that 50% of crimes involve violence: only about 7% do. This means that people overestimate their risk of being victims of crime. Women and the elderly are the least likely to be victims of crime, but their worry about their vulnerability is affecting their quality of life.
Imprisoning people actually increases the crime rate. When someone goes to prison, they meet other prisoners, they lose their relationships and their jobs. People who have nothing to lose are not deterred by the threat of imprisonment, so they re-offend, causing greater crowding in the prisons. The management of over-crowded prisons creates difficulties that are totally unnecessary. It seems that the more over-crowded the prison, the higher the per prisoner cost to the taxpayer. Currently according to Ms Justice Wheeler the annual cost for each prisoner is about $100,000. “In broad terms,” she writes, “for every extra year an offender is imprisoned, there is one less teacher or nurse or police officer the state is able to employ.”
Mental ill-health and drug and alcohol consumption are major issues in violent crime. There are too few treatment options for offenders coming before the courts. Investment in mental health would reduce crime, as would any measures aimed at reducing alcohol consumption.
Media reporting on crime is designed to heighten our awareness of crime, because the nature of the media is to focus on the drama. In addition, police rounds journalists report stories of three or four crimes in succession and this adds to the false impression of the quantity of crime.
Of course sympathy for victims of crime and outrage at violence are appropriate responses to individual crimes; but the next time you hear a politician claim that Western Australia has a law and order problem, call them and tell them they are lying.