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The current state of law and order in Australia: not as simple as it seems

By Adam Graycar - posted Monday, 3 February 2003

It seems everyone wants to reduce crime, but when it comes to discussion of the best strategies to achieve this laudable objective, agreement becomes much harder to reach. Proposals range from nurturing the un-nurtured and understanding the misunderstood, to strengthening families and communities, to building bigger walls and getting stronger locks, to policing more aggressively, to imposing severe jail sentences and throwing away the key, to inflicting cruel and unusual punishments.

In very few areas of public policy does everybody consider themselves an expert. We leave policy on defence, health, transport, the economy, communications (and so on) to appropriate experts, yet on crime reduction policy everyone has their own expert opinion on what 'they oughta' do. In this article, for what they are worth, I offer my own views on the crime reduction issue.

Has crime changed over the years?

Every generation will tell their young that it was better in the old days - when you could leave your doors unlocked, sleep with your windows open, and leave your keys in your car. My colleague Peter Grabosky published a book entitled Sydney in Ferment on crime in colonial Sydney, which showed that the city was in fact a lot more dangerous in its early days than it is today. Paradoxically, although most of Australia is comparatively safe, the incidence of crime is much greater than it was 20 years ago. Criminal activity hurts and outrages people, and costs the community billions of dollars.


Not surprisingly then, the one question the media always ask is: "Is the crime rate up or down"? However, at base this is not a helpful question. (How long is a piece of string? Are tomatoes better than cauliflowers?) The definition of crime is itself a moving target.

What mattered 100 years ago and what we consider unacceptable today are in some respects very different. A century ago there was great concern about drunkenness, gambling, and 'Chinese opium dens'. Yet a century ago, crimes such as superannuation fraud, health insurance and Medicare fraud, theft of telecommunications services, electronic vandalism and varieties of computer hacking, credit card fraud, internet child pornography, electronic funds transfer crime and electronic money laundering were not even on the criminal horizon. (Nor for obvious reasons was there any motor vehicle theft!) However, nude or even topless bathing, or homosexual acts between consenting adults brought criminal sanctions, and public drunkenness comprised more than half of all offences brought before the magistrates' courts in the early years of the twentieth century, and this persisted until the 1950s.

On a per capita basis, considerably fewer people today appear before the courts than did 100 years ago. Of those who do, fewer go to jail. Today, women who appear topless on the beach, and men who have sex with other consenting men, don't find themselves before the court. In both cases they regularly did a generation ago. On the other hand, men who bashed their wives or children a generation ago did not find themselves before the court, but they do today.

Why then do we have the crime we do? Ideologically polarised positions offer competing explanations for increases in crime. One end of the spectrum of views blames permissiveness, bankrupt moral values, contempt for authority, inadequate penalties, while those at the other end of the spectrum blame poor social conditions, unemployment, lack of life and educational opportunity, poverty traps, deprivation, and so on.

There may be other ways to look at the issue beyond these opposing views, however. From a different perspective, there are probably many more opportunities than ever before for criminal behaviour. One could argue that the crime we have is the price we pay for living in a part of the world that offers high material benefits and a very mobile lifestyle. Put that against a context of tremendous social and technological change, and we have a complex set of ingredients that don't seem to fit the standard explanations.

How do we reduce it? In essence there are two main challenges in crime reduction from a systemic (as opposed to moral) point of view. One is to reduce the supply of motivated offenders, the other is to make crime more difficult to commit.


Do we have a law and order problem?

Participants in the law and order debate, or the part of it that focuses on crime rates, are at once cursed and blessed with an abundance of statistics. Such data are produced by police, then aggregated and worked by the Australian Bureau of Statistics into uniform national crime figures. But what do the statistics mean? Not all crimes are reported to the police, not all that are reported are recorded, not all that are recorded are acted upon, not all that are acted upon result in an apprehension, not all apprehensions lead to a court appearance, not all court appearances lead to a trial, not all trials lead to a conviction, and not all convictions lead to a penalty. The figures we choose to use will make a significant difference to the sense we get of the law and order situation.

It is a complicated picture. What measure shall we use to judge the 'law and order problem'? Certainly, crime has increased recently. But the details defy this simple characterisation. Australia is a less violent society today than it was 100 years ago, but more violent than 20 years ago, though today's rates of property crime appear higher than 100 years ago.

Even so, most places have no crime, and crime is highly concentrated in a relatively small number of places. Some shops have no robberies, while a few have lots. A few entertainment venues have a lot of problems; most have none. Even in high-burglary neighbourhoods most residences have no burglaries, while a few suffer from repeat burglaries. It will come as no surprise to note that crime is not an equal-opportunity predator. That is; who you are, where you live, who you know, and who you hang around with all affect your chances of victimisation.

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This article is based on a talk given at the Brisbane Institute in July 2002. The Brisbane Institute is a member of The National Forum.

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About the Author

Adam Graycar is Director of the Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra.

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