Better data needed to inform crime prevention in Europe

New research suggests that there has been a move away from approaches to crime prevention policies that seek to achieve social inclusion towards exclusive approaches focused on punishment. To foster more inclusive approaches to crime prevention, strategies are needed that strengthen existing social controls.

Despite significant variation in crime prevention policies between European countries, the CRIMPREV project found a general move away from a socially inclusive approach to crime prevention that seeks to include young people, residents of disadvantaged neighbourhoods and immigrants in society. Instead, European countries have adopted a more exclusive approach that identifies ‘troublesome’ groups that need to be dealt with as a means of offering protection to the anxious majority.

Exclusive approaches focus more on punishment and criminal justice rather than addressing areas such as school failure, bad housing and support networks. For example, during the 1980s, England and Wales developed a more exclusive model. This model continues to persist although the role of the government has become more distant with development of schemes such as ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ and ‘Community Police’. France has traditionally taken a more socially inclusive approach but has become more exclusive during the 1990s, particularly in its housing policies.

The issue of federalisation impacts upon the nature of crime prevention policy. Centralised states, such as the Netherlands and France, have more stable crime prevention policies then federalised states where there is variation between regions. For example, in Germany where the states (or länder) have a high level of autonomy, there is regional variation in crime policies and new initiatives for crime prevention policy tend to be adopted in a more piecemeal fashion.

Despite this fragmented and often punishment-focused picture of crime prevention policy, it remains possible for socially-inclusive approaches to flourish. To do this policy programmes could include incentives for strengthening natural social controls of crime, particularly in schools and neighbourhoods. They could also aim to improve the bridges and links between families, groups and neighbourhoods and restore trust in communities and institutions.

The CRIMPREV project compared existing research conducted in national contexts. Through the involvement of 30 institutions, the study mapped the crime situation in several European countries, identified good and bad practices in the collection of crime data and suggested appropriate strategies for future development. Having reviewed existing data on crime and crime prevention, CRIMPREV identified the following issues with current data:

Victimisation surveys

These are household surveys which explore people’s experiences as victims of criminal activity such as assault, burglary, rape and theft. Over the years they have developed considerably but irregularly, depending on the country. Surveys on perception of insecurity are far from standardised. Larger samples and greater expertise are needed, including more researchers trained in quantitative methods to analyse this data. At present, these surveys are rarely integrated into decision-making and policy evaluation although these data – when they are good quality – could provide valuable insight into crime knowledge and prevention. Standardised methods of surveying victimisation and insecurity would improve comparisons over time, enabling trends to be identified more easily and comparisons to be made between regions and countries.

Self-reported delinquency (SRD) surveys in Europe

SRD surveys are studies which directly ask people – usually young people – about their delinquent behaviours. Although SRD surveys do not measure the most serious types of offence, they provide extremely useful information on minor offences and are mainly used to assess levels of juvenile delinquency. In countries such as England and Wales, Finland, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland and Sweden, SRD surveys are required by the state and run on a regular basis, allowing comparisons over time to identify trends. Germany is also running longitudinal as well as cross-sectional regional and local surveys on a regular basis. In Belgium, France, Italy and Ireland, SRD surveys take place punctually although not as a state requirement. CRIMPREV researchers suggest that self-reported delinquency surveys should be developed on a wider basis, not only to assess delinquency but also drug abuse and school violence.

Comparison of survey data and police figures

A comparison of crime reported in police statistics and the results of victimisation surveys in European countries has confirmed that police records cover only a small part of victimisation experienced by the public. There are hidden numbers of crime victims or ‘dark numbers’. The size of these dark numbers varies across countries and seems to be larger amongst the New Member States. For example, Estonia has a relatively low number of police-recorded crimes (nearly 4,000 offences per 100,000 population) but a high victimisation rate with over 20 per cent of people reporting they have been the victim of crime. The figures for Ireland appear even more divergent with nearly 2,000 offences per 100,000 population and a victimisation rate of 23 per cent.

Researchers suggest this is due to limited police resources to respond to incidents and that, once these improve, figures of crime rates will rise steeply although the level of crime may in fact remain the same or even decrease. This means comparison of police statistics across countries will result in erroneous conclusions.

The development of a standardised victimisation survey for Europe could help remove these issues. In addition, complementary data should be considered alongside reports of crime and victimisation, such as statistics from health institutions on incidents involving violence.

Evaluating crime prevention policy

Evaluation is essential for the development of existing policy and to ensure new policies are working, but it can meet resistance from several levels. For it to be successful it requires engagement of both policy makers and researchers, careful planning before the start of the policy or programme to be evaluated, and complete independence of the evaluators.

CRIMPREV – Assessing Deviance, Crime and Prevention in Europe (duration: 1/7/2006 – 30/6/2009) was a Coordination Action funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 7 - Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.

See: http://lodel.irevues.inist.fr/crimprev/index.php?id=281/

Contact: René Lévy, rlevy@cesdip.fr