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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Property crime takes its toll

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I'm not convinced that harsher penalties are necessarily the most effective response to minor thefts. Even when these offences are committed by an organised crime group, those doing the actual stealing are unlikely to be those making the most profit. However, fully resourced Safer Neighbourhood Teams were, in my opinion, the single most important and effective policing development of the last 40 years - whether full funding can be restored in 2015 does, however, seem unlikely.

The regressive impact of property crime

David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham (@DavidLammy on Twitter) recently (3 March 2015) authored a provocative report on property crime published by the Policy Exchange Think Tank,

In the report entitled “Taking its toll: the regressive impact of property crime in Britain”, Lammy argues that the police and the courts are turning a blind eye to theft, burglary and shoplifting which, together, make up three quarters of all recorded crime in England and Wales.

property crime

Unreported

The report highlights how large swathestaking its toll cover of property crime go unreported, especially among independent shopkeepers, with people having little faith in the ability of the police to bring the perpetrators to justice. Less than 1 in 10 incidents of shoplifting is reported to the police. Lammy argues that organised crime is behind an increasing proportion of property crime committed in the UK citing theft of mobile phones, targeting Asian families on their way to weddings to rob them of their jewellery, stealing lead from church roofs and copper from the railways as well as organised shoplifting.

Other figures in the report emphasise the problem:

  • Only two thirds of burglaries are reported to the police – only those who can afford insurance routinely report burglary.
  • Half of burglary victims never hear back from the police after reporting a crime
  • 19,000 incidents of bicycle theft were reported to the Metropolitan Police in 2013-14 yet only 666 (3.5%) of these thefts were solved

The paper also argues that shoplifting from smaller retailers such as newsagents has virtually been decriminalised in the eyes of the law.

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An ineffective response

The paper also argues that the responses to property crime are ineffective, attributing this failure to a range of factors including:

  • Cautioning policy – 45 per cent of offenders cautioned for theft offences had already received a caution or conviction for a previous offence
  • Magistrates’ lack of sentencing options for fine defaulters
  • The loss of crime prevention officers in the wake of budget cuts
  • Landlords not fitting basic crime prevention measures on private rented accommodation (window locks, internal timer lights, deadlocks and security lights – all of which are reasonably inexpensive). In Western Australia, landlords are legally required to fit all of these.

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Recommendations

David Lammy, has clearly got a personal interest in addressing this issue from his experience as a local MP in an area that was devastated by the August 2011 riots. I also wonder whether the report is a component of his campaign to be the next Labour candidate to be Mayor of London. The report rather exaggerates the situation and ignores the fact that tens of thousands of people receive custodial sentences every year for property offences.He makes a series of recommendations to address property crime including:

  1. Restoring ward-level neighbourhood policing teams consisting of a sergeant, two constables and three Police Community Support Officers and ensure they focus their efforts on preventing and solving local property crime.
  2. Giving magistrates flexibility to enforce unpaid court fines through means other than six months imprisonment.
  3. Implementing a penalties escalator for repeated theft. Courts should be able to break the caution-fine-reoffending cycle by increasing the sentence for reoffending.
  4. Making it compulsory for new police recruits to walk the same beat for at least a year – and preferably two years – after they complete training.
  5. Introducing New York Compstat-style data sharing between police forces to pinpoint crime trends and hotspots.
  6. Establishing a Crime Prevention Centre of Excellence within the College of Policing to improve crime prevention expertise within police forces.

I’m not convinced that harsher penalties are necessarily the most effective response to minor thefts. Even when these offences are committed by an organised crime group, those doing the actual stealing are unlikely to be those making the most profit. However, fully resourced Safer Neighbourhood Teams were, in my opinion, the single most important and effective policing development of the last 40 years – whether full funding can be restored in 2015 does, however, seem unlikely.

Please share your views on how we should tackle property crime via the comments box below.

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