Chain fence

How to prevent crime before it happens

11 September 2017

How do we encourage people not to break the law? Dr Garner Clancey from Sydney Law School joins Open for Discussion to chat crime statistics and the strategies used today to prevent crimes.

Most times we think of crime, it’s after the fact. But what if through certain measures we could stop a crime before it happens? No, it's not a Tom Cruise movie, simply the idea that through certain measures, the opportunity for crime may be removed.

Dr Garner Clancey joins our host Dr Chris Neff in the latest episode of Open for Discussion. He is an expert in crime prevention and statistics and over the past 25 years has worked with NSW Police, the Department of Juvenile Justice and other government organisations on a number of crime prevention strategies.

Host: Dr Chris Neff
Guest: Dr Garner Clancey
Producers: Annika Dean and Verity Leatherdale
Editor: Caitlin Gibson

Dr Garner Clancey
Dr Garner Clancey is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology. Before joining the University of Sydney Law School in 2011, Garner worked as a crime prevention consultant and in criminal justice.

Dr Garner Clancey shares four misconceptions about crime:

Myth 1: The crime rate is going up

We’re not in the grips of a crime wave, in fact the overall crime rate in NSW has been declining since the turn of the millennium. In the UK the crime rate began declining around 1995, while in the US it began to fall in 1990, 1991.

And the falls have been quite dramatic. For example, in the year 2000 there was around 82,000 incidents of burglary per year in NSW, while last year it was only 32,000. And the murder rate in the state is the lowest it’s been in 40 years.

Problem is, no one can explain the major drop – it’s criminology’s ‘dirty little secret’!

Myth 2: Closed circuit television is a good prevention tool

CCTV can be successful in preventing thefts from shops, however the data shows that for public places it’s really not all that useful.

People may not know the cameras are there - especially if they’re intoxicated – so continue with the behaviour anyway. And those watching the cameras may not realise anything criminal is going on so can’t do anything to stop the crime.

Some cameras aren’t even monitored, so are only helpful for identification once a crime has been committed.

Myth 3: Putting people in prison stops crime

Prison is a big investment without a great return.

It costs the state approximately $200 a day to incarcerate an adult in NSW, while it costs nearly $1000 a day to incarcerate a juvenile.

However, nearly one in two people leaving prison today in NSW, will return to prison within two years.

Myth 4: All crimes are reported equally

For those crimes that people need to report for insurance reasons, such as car theft or house break ins, we know the statistics are fairly accurate – not much goes unreported.

Unfortunately the opposite is true for sexual assault and domestic violence. This means that the recent rise we’ve seen in those crimes is only telling part of the story.

It's hard to determine whether that is an increase in the volume of domestic violence or it's because people are more prepared to report to police – what it does tell us is that we need to take the increase very seriously.

Full transcript

(music plays)

Chris Neff: You're listening to Open for Discussion, a University of Sydney podcast that discusses research through a personal and critical lens. I'm your host, Chris Neff.

Most times we think of crime, it's after the fact. Whether as a victim or reading about it in the news, often it's not until a crime has been committed that people take notice. But what if we could prevent crime before it even happened. No, it's not a Tom Cruise movie, simply the idea that through certain measures, the opportunity for crime may be removed.

Joining me today on Open for Discussion is Dr Garner Clancey, a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at The University of Sydney Law School and an expert in crime prevention and crime statistics. Over the past 25 years, Garner has worked with NSW police, The Department of Juvenile Justice and other government organisations on a number of crime prevention strategies.

Thank you so much for joining us Garner.

Dr Garner Clancey: My pleasure, thanks Chris.

Chris Neff: So can I start by asking a basic question? What brought you to the research? What brought you to Criminology?

Dr Garner Clancey: My pathway really started where I was studying Psychology as an Undergraduate student. I fortuitously ended up working in the Juvenile Justice system and working in Juvenile Justice centres which really fuelled a passion to prevent crime.

Working in a closed environment like a Juvenile Justice centre suggested to me that there were better ways of preventing crime, reducing victimisation and preventing the degradation associated with being locked up in a total institution like a Juvenile Justice centre.

Chris Neff: So, not to simplify it but how do we prevent crime? What are some of the things that we can do differently than we are currently doing them in order to reduce crime rates?

Dr Garner Clancey: They're probably four key approaches to the prevention of crime..and I might just explain a few aspects of each. The criminal justice system obviously seeks to prevent crime through policing practices, procedures in courts and corrections programs such as prison or community corrections.

They are fairly blunt instruments in the prevention space because obviously crime has occurred for those agencies to intervene. Situational crime prevention is about the reduction of opportunities for crime. So a lot of crime is episodic and not particularly well planned unlike what you might believe from reading lots of crime novels. So if we can change the opportunity structure in our communities, in our facilities, in our environments then we can actively prevent crime.

Another approach is through trying to improve the social conditions. So it's probably no surprise that having communities that are connected, well bonded are likely to result in lower crime rates in those communities.

The final model is developmental crime prevention or early intervention. That means we intervene early in the life course or the history of the young person or child to try and give them the best upbringing, the best opportunity in life to succeed. So there's a lot of research that points to good quality preschool, enrichment program in early childhood environments that improve language acquisition and learning.

These are the types of things that bear fruit in 15, 20 years down the course where people are performing better in employment, education and generally have better lives and are less likely to be drawn into offending lifestyles.

Chris Neff: You've given me a lot there and I've got a few questions but it also sort of brought home the question what is a crime? How do you come to crime as a Criminologist?

Dr Garner Clancey: That's a complicated question. In many respects the easy answer is just to say well it's whatever the legislature decides is a crime. So lots of behaviours are categorised as crimes in our various statutes but your point is an important one that that really then determines or depends on what is brought to the parliament, what people are outraged by. So there are a whole variety of behaviours that are criminalised that might affect particular communities more than other communities.

In the Australian context, offensive language for example is probably an archaic offence in many respects given what we would read about or hear in the TV or in comedy programs but we know that Aboriginal communities for example are over represented in statistics on offensive conduct, offensive language as a result of often more concentrated policing practices in those communities. So there's a real tension about how you define a crime and then what power affects those definitions have for people of particular backgrounds.

Chris Neff: Yeah I mean...there are 2 examples that come to mind from my research. The first is that it used to be illegal to swim during the daylight hours until about 1902 and that was a significant offence and you could be fined or you could be arrested by what was called a beach monitor at the time.

And then the second one is homosexuality. I'm sort of gay as the sky is blue and my citizenship and my existence would've been significantly affected in pre 1983...1983 homosexual conduct laws and so..sort of this idea of what is a crime in the way that it evolved subjectively over time is socially constructed.

Dr Garner Clancey: Absolutely and there's lots of debate in sort of socio-legal studies and critical legal scholarship around those questions that you've raised. I tend to focus on offences that are… there's less dispute that that's a crime if they steal your motor vehicle or rob you, and they're the areas that I've tended to concentrate on.

Chris Neff: And in terms of that I've obviously then looked at the prevention methods that you can do and it sounds like it's gotten fairly evolved into behavioural insights and behavioural public policy, to educate the public as well as deter criminals.

Dr Garner Clancey: Absolutely. And that notion of behavioural insights is an important one because we can learn a lot about how to prevent crime through the practices, the routine, activities, the scripts that offenders use. What are they looking for? What are the easy opportunities? And if we understand that then we can put in place measures that are often fairly inoffensive to be honest, that can have quite positive and dramatic prevention outcomes.

So my example about motor vehicle theft is a classic one. We know the particular makes and models of vehicle that are easy to steal but the newer vehicles with all the security measures built in..the falls in motor vehicle thefts in the last 15 years have been in the order of 75%. That's where I think prevention can be incredibly powerful because that's a simple measure that costs us very little, that there are no obvious trade offs and yet we have substantial positive benefits.

Chris Neff: Can I ask just for our listeners...what are the cars or what are the makes that are most likely to be susceptible to some kind of crime?

Dr Garner Clancey: I feel that I need to be cautious now...ahh...I don't know who's listening (laughs).

Chris Neff: We don't any criminals listening so you're safe.

Dr Garner Clancey: Ahh...I could say generally that if you owned a particular Hyundai that didn't cost you a great deal and it was made before 1993, that you're at greater risk of having it stolen.

Chris Neff: That is...well taken and moving on swiftly...can I ask about sort of some of these other things we've got? You know you have control orders, you have AVO's, you have lock out laws. To what extent do those pieces contribute to reducing crime in sort of the four different categories that you noted.

Dr Garner Clancey: Domestic violence orders or apprehended violence orders, control orders that are basically seek to modify people's movement. They are a sort of part of a suite of measures that probably fall under the more punitive end of the spectrum of prevention where there's a direct impact on people's capacity to assemble, to move through time and space without being surveilled.

If I just take the lock out laws as a bit of an example for a moment and talk to some elements of that kind of overall policy regime. The lockout laws have proven to be very successful in reducing crime in the area that the lock out laws were intended to impact, particularly Kings Cross and parts of the Sydney CBD.

So there's a degree to which the advocates of situational crime prevention would say that was a highly successful intervention. This is where crime prevention comes with trade-offs. The trade-off being that for a lot of people who want to socialise in the night time economy that is Sydney CBD or the Kings Cross area, they feel aggrieved that venues are closing or they are being locked out, there are repercussions around workforce in those areas that are being put off because the pubs and clubs are no longer as successful as they once were.

So there's a real tension in some aspects of prevention thinking about who are we seeking to prevent crime for? Who are the victims or potential victims and what are the costs of preventing crime? So we can prevent crime but it's not always advantageous to necessarily seek that as an objective.

Chris Neff: Garner can I ask you how governments are able to balance personal freedom with crime prevention methods?

Dr Garner Clancey: That's an important question Chris and is a difficult one to respond to in that the trade-off for a lot of prevention activity is often greater surveillance, greater intrusion into the lives of particular groups in the community.

So I think it's a good aspiration to seek to reduce and prevent crime but not at all costs. So the expansion of powers for police, the expansion of powers for other government agencies that result in incredibly intrusive, coercive practices in the lives of marginalised and disadvantaged groups. So we need to be very careful about what we do in the name of prevention.

Chris Neff: So you're noting that incarceration may not be balanced with crime prevention. Incarceration...and I mean this is sort of the story we always know you sort of take a petty criminal and you turn him into a hardened criminal by sending him to gaol and then they get out and now you've got a bigger problem on your hands than you had before.

Dr Garner Clancey: Yes, absolutely and because the penal state is expanding, the prison population in NSW has been growing rapidly in the last few years, quarter on quarter growth, exceeded 13,000 adult prisoners for the first time ever recently. That means that you've got a whole lot of families who are affected, you've got a whole lot of employment prospects that are completely disrupted by virtue of imprisonment. You get very little if any returns in a prevention sense from imprisoning people and you have some of the worst levels of recidivism in the country in NSW. So just to put that in context, nearly one in two people leaving prison today in NSW, will return to prison within two years.

Chris Neff: Wow.

Dr Garner Clancey: That's a..given the big investment, costs us approximately $200 a day to incarcerate an adult in NSW. It costs us nearly $350,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile in NSW. So there's a big investment but not a great return on that investment. So looking for alternative regimes, whether they are rehabilitation, whether they are employment based, whether they are housing models, whether they're through care models that support people through the criminal justice system and beyond. Exploring those options rather than just focusing on detaining and incarcerating people and warehousing them in big prisons, I think needs to be part of the policy mix.

Chris Neff: Well you would think there would have to be if 50% of your population is going to reoffend within 2 years...I mean that's sort of enormously fast.

Dr Garner Clancey: Yeah...and that's returning to prison so that's reoffending rates would be even higher because not everyone will return to prison within that time frame. So yes there's absolute policy imperative to think about alternatives to imprisonment.

(music plays)

Chris Neff: You're listening to Open for Discussion, a University of Sydney podcast. I’m your host Chris Neff, a lecturer in public policy with a particular interest in the role of emotions in policy making. Today I am talking crime prevention with Dr Garner Clancey.

Can I ask about CCTV and your thoughts on CCTV and whether or not it works and whether or it something that actually does reduce crime and create safer communities?

Dr Garner Clancey: As is probably unsurprising given that I work at a university, I'm going to give you a complex answer. Where it appears to be most successful is entry and egress of a retail outlet. CCTV can be very effective in preventing crime. The data tends to suggest it's less effective in public places. There are ways to conceal behaviours. So a drug deal could take place right under a camera and may not be witnessed or recognised as a drug deal.

Then we have the issue of people who are intoxicated who are completely unaware of cameras so it doesn't prevent their offending. So the best research that has been done on CCTV in public spaces say very modest at best returns on investment and it can be quite an investment because the systems that are more likely to be effective are those that have continuous monitoring. So there is someone physically sitting there watching the cameras and we've had generally a large crime decline in many of these areas in any case so what's the point of running them to pick up one or two offences over the course of a weekend or a week.

Chris Neff: to recap, lock out laws probably work and CCTV probably doesn't..which's not like TV at all.

Dr Garner Clancey:'s far from what you see on TV.

Chris Neff: Well this is very interesting. Ok, are there any other crime statistics that you think we need to know about.

Dr Garner Clancey: Well I think there's a number of trends that people just completely don't recognise and that's largely about the crime decline. So the US crime decline started it appears around 1990, 91, in the UK around 1995, in NSW it seemed to begin at the end of the year 2000, round the beginning of 2001.

And when I say falls, we're talking really substantial falls so if I took burglary as an example we were running at about 82,000 incidents of burglary per annum in NSW in the year 2000. Last year that was approximately 32,000. We had 55,000 motor vehicles stolen in the year 2000, last year that was just over 12,000. Robbery has fallen even greater. Murder in NSW is down to the lowest level it's been in 40 years. Just really widespread declines but there are examples of offences that have bucked the trend. Domestic violence has been trending up and continues to trend up according the most recent statistics. Fraud has been going up and the figures look bad but...

Chris Neff: I've had my identity stolen 3 times in Sydney.

Dr Garner Clancey:...right.

Chris Neff: So that's 3 statistics right there for you.

Dr Garner Clancey: And those 3 statistics, if a crook used your credit card multiple times, that ends up in multiple charges. So the increase in fraud looks quite dramatic but perhaps isn't necessarily as alarming as it looks but the increase in domestic violence, and we have had an increase in sexual assault as well in the last number of years, they're worrying and we need to come up with better and more effective prevention campaigns in those areas.

Chris Neff: To a certain...and sort of what we were talking about when we started about social construction. I mean...the right of anything is only the degree that which you are looking for it. We consider domestic violence in a much more holistic way than we did 30 years ago when it was sort of private behaviour in the home. So now that we consider it differently, we count it differently and I think we should and...the same is true with sexual assaults, the same is true with you know...LGBT hate crimes. I mean...what aren't we counting that you think we should be counting? Is there anything?

Dr Garner Clancey: It's a good question. I might just say that when we think about burglary and motor vehicle theft, cause people often say well isn't it just an artefact of reporting, maybe we're less inclined to report those offences, the answer is absolutely no on those offences because of our insurance policies. We know that we have very high reporting of those crimes.

Now when you think about domestic violence, the reverse is true. We have very low reporting so a real increase in crime's hard to determine whether that is actually an increase in the volume of domestic violence or it's because people are more prepared to report and police are more prepared to take this crime seriously.

In terms of other things that need to be counted...I'm often more interested in the other aspects of crime data rather than just the actual reporting, I'm interested in crime mapping. So I'm particularly interested in how we understand the spacial, temporal trends in crime and often we don't get very good geographical information which can be particularly important for a prevention point of view.

Just again to give you a kind of example. There's research that says if your home is broken into, the homes either side of you or on the same side of the street are at elevated risk for the next month. Now we know this through detailed analysis of spacial elements of crime trends. Gathering that sort of information I think is really important but when governments seek to kind of cut back on data collection, often we see compromises in the type of data that we end up collecting and therefore analysing.

Chris Neff: Is there a reason...I mean you mentioned that there had been declines in crime rates in The United States, in Australia and in The UK. Is there any data on what was the reason behind that? Is there something evidence based we can go off of?

Dr Garner Clancey: Not exactly. Some criminologists have referred to this as Criminology's dirty little secret. We don't actually understand why the declines occurred. There are various kind of...working hypotheses. Some focus on opportunity reduction in a variety of ways, whether it's through improving security of our homes and our vehicles. Another hypothesis is if we prevent the opportunity to commit some of those lower order offences if you like...then perhaps we reduce the opportunities for people to become more indoctrinated into a criminal milieu. So if a young person doesn't steal your car and then meets someone that they're selling the car to who then tells them that there are other opportunities if they steal more cars, then perhaps we are reducing the kind of pathway into more serious crime. That's one working model.

Another is really focused on drugs and drug trends. So there seemed to have been a much closer relationship between the use of heroin and the offending for the purposes of funding drug habits. Whilst we've had all of this reporting and discussion about meth-amphetamine use, we haven't seen the same flow on effect into other forms of criminality. So perhaps that's also part of the picture, the heroine drought in NSW seems to have occurred around 2000, 2001 and bottom line, financial and economic conditions have been pretty positive over the last 2 decades. So perhaps that's also part of the picture that more people are surviving without the need to resort to the illegal or informal economy.

Chris Neff: So that's an instance of statistics informing a public decision or policy maker...what have you. Are there examples where statistics either aren't used properly or can tell us something completely different than what they really mean?

Dr Garner Clancey: Yes, many examples. I think an area that is really prone to kind of political and policy pressure and fluctuations is around policing of drugs. So people don't report that they observed a drug use. People don't report they just use drugs so the data is only ever collected when someone's apprehended and they're found in possession of drugs.

That activity, that proactivity of policing agencies is very much linked to kind of moral panics and concerns about particular drugs at particular times. So at the moment the area where there's heightened concern I suppose across the community is meth-amphetamines or ice which then perpetuates a narrative that we need more policing, we need more law enforcement because there is more of this crime.

And the popular perception of meth-amphetamine uses is pretty extreme but there seems to be conflicting data. The policing agencies...some policing agencies might say that that's the case but other health agencies have probably got a more sobering and modest response that it possibly isn't as big a problem as being made out, that we need to invest in treatment, not just in policing because we need to develop new treatment methodologies that respond to meth-amphetamines.

So there's a tension around how some of this reporting and how some of these crime statistics are used to perpetuate particular narratives that you know...either result in folk devils being created or moral panics being stimulated.

Chris Neff: So one of things that sort of perpetuates these folk devils or moral panics or what not is the media. Do you..has any of your work..or do you have any thoughts on the media’s contribution to this?

Dr Garner Clancey: I do.

Chris Neff: (laughs)

Dr Garner Clancey: My thoughts are that the media now because we've been in a state of fairly significant falls in major crime categories, cherry pick the worst of the crime data, they look for stories that confirm a narrative, that narrative being crime is out of control...we're all unsafe, which I would argue against. So they will look through the crime statistics when they're released and they’ll find where there has been an increase and report those at the exclusion of commentary about the declines.

So my frustration is that people by and large don't realise that we've had really, really significant falls in many crime categories by virtue of them being skewed and cherry picking type media coverage that really we're not in the grips of a crime wave, we're a long way from where we were in the 1990's, certainly in this state but that's certainly not the case now. So I think just be mindful of that and holding some of the media to account.

Chris Neff: Well I think that's very important. Well it sounds like it isn't fair to continue to perpetuate folk devils or false narratives about marginalised populations. I mean especially if we know so little about why crime goes up and goes down, then maybe we need to take a step back and be sure that we're being generous and kind to the people who are the victims of these crimes.

Dr Garner Clancey: Here here.

(music plays)

Chris Neff: Thank you so much for joining us Dr Garner Clancey from The University of Sydney.

Dr Garner Clancey: Thank you very much Chris.

Chris Neff: Thanks for joining us on Open for Discussion, a University of Sydney podcast. To hear more great stories you can subscribe to iTunes or on Soundcloud and if you'd like to know more about our research be sure to visit our website

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