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There is one criminal case that is evading even the world’s best sleuths, and after decades of theorising, experts are no closer to finding the answer. While it is self-evident that drug wars in Mexico and political unrest in Côte d’Ivoire have increased violence in these developing countries, it is still a mystery why crime rates in the US and western Europe continue to fall.
Politicians are keen to take the credit for creating safer cities, and police claim their zero-tolerance strategies are immobilising petty criminals before their offences escalate. The US is now more peaceful than at any time in the past 20 years, and the UK crime rate at its lowest since records began.
However, since the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) estimates that violence still costs British taxpayers £124bn a year and those of the US $460bn annually, bringing the crime figures down further could have significant economic benefits.
Daniel Hyslop, research manager at the Sydney-based IEP, admits he is surprised the reason for the fall has not been found. “It’s amazing that in the criminology fraternity there isn’t any consensus on why violent crime is going down in the western world and developed nations,” he says, adding that in his view, there is still no simple explanation of the phenomenon.
In this confusion, myriad suggestions have been put forward. These range from the plausible – such as higher incarceration rates in North America taking criminals out of circulation – to the bizarre, such as the idea that poisoning from lead in paint and petrol fumes during the 1990s made young people more predisposed to violence. Some have even suggested an “Obama effect” in the US, whereby the election of the first black president has been such a collective inspiration that some would-be criminals have turned away from illegal activity.
There are certainly some factors that have contributed to the crime fall. Electronic items which used to be targeted in domestic burglaries have become cheaper to buy, making the risk-to-reward ratio less favourable to the amateur criminal. Car alarms and immobilisers have led to huge reductions in vehicle theft, which has halved in US states such as Washington over the past decade.
DNA profiling makes it easier to link offenders to the scene of the crime, making the chances of getting caught much higher. Similarly, the proliferation of smartphones and the ability of anyone, anywhere, to record video has acted as a deterrent to criminals.
As a result of these changes, an epidemic of peace appears to have broken out across the western world. Despite fears that recession would breed greater criminality, the IEP has recorded extremely low levels of crime, even in countries such as Iceland that suffered badly in the financial crisis.
By contrast, the IEP’s data shows the least peaceful countries to be those, such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria and Sudan, that are already affected with more fundamental civil conflict.
But before developed countries become too complacent, new research shows a blot on the horizon. Just as technology may be helping deter some criminal behaviour, it is also providing a new outlet for criminals. Cyber crime and online fraud are difficult to measure and notoriously underreported – so statistics that appear to show an overall fall in crime may be ignoring the pattern that e-offences are on the increase just as more traditional ones decline.
Last summer, the UK’s Office for National Statistics published figures showing a 27 per cent rise in fraud over the year, including retail scams on sites such as eBay, phishing rackets and fake dating websites.
While it is difficult to collect precise data on the incidence of cyber crimes, police are beginning to grasp the threat. Scotland Yard recently quadruped its e-crime unit to 400 officers, the same size as the force’s flagship gang command. Across the Atlantic, James Comey, the newly appointed FBI director, has told a Senate Committee that he will be focusing increasing resources on the prevention of cyber attacks and eventually expects this to eclipse the bureau’s counterterror activities.
For those countries that are still battling more traditional forms of crime and unrest, a different strategy is needed. The IEP and others are pushing to include the reduction of violence in the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals, in recognition of the fact that hostile environments prevent other policy advances.
“You can’t get education and sanitation and health in an area that’s violent,” Mr Hyslop explains, citing Syria as an example of this problem. “Very few low-income countries that had endemic violence have reached any of their MDGs, because once you are in a state of conflict it’s very difficult to disrupt that pattern,” he says.