Why violent crime is plummeting in the rich world – build research capacity in low and middle income countries too

12 Feb

Pinker continues to be right.

NS 3007: Manuel Eisner: Why violent crime is plummeting in the rich world
* 09 February 2015

Manuel Eisner heads the Violence Research Centre at the University
of Cambridge Institute of Criminology

Efforts to explain a big drop in violent crime in many nations may
help turn the tide in places where murder rates are stubbornly high

VIOLENT crime is on the retreat in most advanced economies. The
latest US figures, for 2013, show that murder rates are lower now
than in the early 1960s. In the same year, homicides in Japan hit a
post-war low. In England and Wales the level of violence has dropped
by 66 per cent since the latest peak in 1995.

In fact, big falls in homicides have happened in virtually all
developed societies over the past 20 years. In the US, it is clear
that the decline in violence extends to robbery, assault, rape,
child maltreatment, domestic abuse and school bullying.

Why crime rose sharply in the second half of the 20th century before
falling dramatically is open to debate. The causes are complex, and
we are only starting to unravel them. It is also clear that in some
nations homicide rates remain stubbornly high.

Against this backdrop, leading scholars believe that non-conflict
violence could be halved across the world in the next 30 years.

So what have we learned from the recent crime fall in developed
nations that could help? Some explanations are controversial – for
example, linking it to the harmful impact of lead exposure, shown to
heighten aggression and dysfunctional behaviour, and the banning of
lead in petrol – but others are more broadly accepted.

A drop in societal violence often appears to be linked to social
control technologies, including monitoring technologies, as well as
increased control over disorderly conduct, and systems aimed at
early identification of offenders. Some of the decline in crime
across the Western world is probably a side effect of building more
effective security and surveillance technologies into everyday life.
These include central deadlocking systems in vehicles, better and
more widespread home protection technologies, more CCTV cameras, and
the move away from a cash-based economy. This raises important
issues for reducing violence in developing nations, as it implies
that violence prevention needs to be built in from the start, for
example, in communication technologies and urban infrastructure.

In addition, any attempt to shift high violence rates must note that
homicide declines are often triggered by influential groups or
individuals emphasising the importance of self-control, civility and
respect, changing societal views on harming others. Over the last 20
years much evidence suggests that in the West we have become less
tolerant of violence, maybe as part of an ongoing civilising process
that stretches back centuries. Bullying is no longer seen as a
normal part of going to school, nor is it acceptable for parents to
lash out at children, and tolerance of racially and sexually abusive
language has shrunk. The public outcry about recent sexual abuse
scandals in the UK involving high-profile individuals is not a sign
that things are getting worse. Most of the offences date back
decades anyway. What it does show is that we have become more
intolerant of abusive behaviour by powerful people.

Improving policing in nations with stubbornly high violent crime is
also important. This is another likely factor driving the current
decline in violence in the West, where evidence-based policing
methods started to take hold in the final decade of the 20th
century. On this front, Lawrence Sherman, director of the Institute
of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, recommends using the
“triple-T” strategy: targeting scarce resources by focusing on
predictable concentrations of crime and disorder; testing police
practices to help choose those that work best to reduce harm; and
tracking the delivery and effects of those practices.

Longer-term trends are also informative, especially in homicide –
which has gone down in recent centuries in wealthier countries,
despite intermittent upsurges. Historically, homicide rates have
declined where states established an effective rule of law, curbing
the corruption of officials, gaining control over private protection
markets, and where states became more legitimate through accountable
institutions, winning greater public trust. Any strategy to reduce
violent crime in less-developed parts of the world must therefore
also target political elites, who must commit to the rule of law,
improved governance and inclusive state services.

Tackling violence in countries where it remains stubbornly high is
important for economic as well as humanitarian reasons. The
Copenhagen Consensus Center, which promotes an evidence-based
approach to improving welfare worldwide, puts the global costs of
violence, excluding conflicts, at $9.5 trillion a year, equivalent
to around 11 per cent of world GDP. Homicides, violent crime, child
abuse, domestic violence and sexual violence account for most of the

While studies of downward crime trends offer guidance, if we are to
turn global violence reduction into a coherent field of action, we
need a lot more knowledge. We need monitoring systems that describe
different kinds of violence at global, national and regional levels
so we can direct action to where it is needed most. Additionally, we
will need to overcome the massive gap between where the knowledge is
and where the needs are greatest.

Half of all the world’s 450,000 homicides each year occur in just 20
countries. All are in Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa, account
for a mere 10 per cent of the world population, and have very
limited research capacity. In contrast, 95 per cent of all knowledge
on effective violence prevention relates to the US and wealthy
European countries.

While work continues to fully understand the crime declines in these
countries, it is now essential to build research capacity in low and
middle income countries too, so they can follow suit and enjoy a
safer future.


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