Heroin epidemics send crime rates up and down
A recent Home Office report authored by Nick Morgan makes a convincing case that the heroin epidemics of the 1980s and 1990s are the main cause of both the unprecedented surge and recent fall in crime rates. Although Morgan admits that his methodology is not bullet-proof owing to limitations on the data available, he makes, to my mind, a very convincing case.
Morgan summarises his argument in the following terms (page 58): “Following the opening of a new heroin supply route in the late 1970s, England and Wales had a significant drugs epidemic, or wave of epidemics, through the 1980s and early 1990s. This produced a cohort of heroin users, many of whom also used crack as their drug misuse developed.
The cohort was not homogeneous. Many (perhaps most) did not become either long-term addicted or prolific criminals and some were offenders before using opiates or crack. While many probably had the clustering of crime risk factors that could have marked them out for a criminal career in the absence of the epidemic, the cohort probably also included a number of individuals whose only crime risk factor was a susceptibility to peer influence at a time when heroin use was spreading in their area. For the first group, heroin use may have accelerated and extended an existing criminal career and for some of the second group heroin may have kick-started a criminal career.
Crimes committed were mainly minor theft offences. As a result, this cohort became prominent in the offending population and probably had a large impact on total crime, which is dominated by acquisitive crime. The crime rise was steady during the 1980s, when the majority of England and Wales remained relatively unaffected by the epidemic. It then increased very rapidly in the 1990s as every police force area except Merseyside reached its peak of opiate/crack use.
Once the epidemic had spread across England and Wales and all susceptible individuals had been ‘exposed’, the number of new users probably decreased just as quickly as it had risen. Crime therefore began to fall; quickly at first as the less-recalcitrant users quit in significant numbers. But then more steadily as the population whittled down to more established users.”
The most convincing aspects of Morgan’s hypothesis are the way that is able to match local crime rates with peak levels of heroin use (although, unfortunately, he has to use the now-defunct Addicts Index as the indicator of heroin dependency). Atypical areas where heroin use peaked earlier (Merseyside, Edinburgh and the Republic of Ireland) or not at all (Northern Ireland) show very close correlation between the rise and fall of crime rates.
Recession is not so important
One criminological theory, to which I was subscribed myself, was that crime rates were related to the general economic situation. It seemed natural that crime would rise when more people were unemployed and lacking the means to buy goods and services from their wages. However, criminologists have been puzzled by the way in which the crime rate has continued to fall markedly since the most recent recession. Morgan argues that the continued fall in acquisitive crime rates correlates with a slowly shrinking heroin/crack using population, rather than with economic factors.
This is only a brief summary of Morgan’s argument and those with more sophisticated research skills than mine may be able to pick holes in his argument. Nonetheless, I strongly recommend reading the report in full if you are interested in either the causes of crime or the drug-crime nexus. Is heroin really the single most important cause of crime in the UK over the last 30 years? I would be very interested to read your comments below.