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The world of crime in 2017 (Part 3)
Last in a 3-part series from crime expert Tom Gash sets out 5 challenges for governments on crime including: how much punishment can society afford?

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This is the last in a three-part blog series from Tom Gash looking at the global challenges that crime will bring to developed countries in 2017. Many readers will already know Tom from his book: Criminal: the truth about why people do bad things which successfully deconstructed many of the myths about crime and offending promoted by politicians of all persuasions. You can catch up with Tom on Twitter: @Tom_Gash

Five questions that must be answered by governments around the world

Parts one and two of this series examined the shifting pressures that developed countries will face in the coming year – and argued that most countries now find their justice systems to be overwhelmed by work despite falling crime rates. In 2017, a fair number of jurisdictions will no doubt find themselves fire-fighting but there are huge rewards for countries that are willing to ask – and answer – five more fundamental questions:

1: Who should deal with crime and cyber-crime in particular?

Too many in and outside government labour under the illusion that criminal justice agencies control the main levers of crime reduction. The truth, however, is that business and citizens themselves have considerable influence – as their actions dramatically shape and reshape the number of easy opportunities for crime. A prime example of this would be the way that car crime plummeted in the 1990s and 2000s largely due to improved security measures introduced by government manufacturers, who in turn were responding to consumers taking an increased interest in security. This does not, of course, mean that government has no clout: quite the opposite. Active regulation was a vital trigger for manufacturers to take action – those countries who mandated electronic immobilisers benefitting from from much quicker falls in crime than the US and other more reluctant regulators.

There are important debates to be had about how to balance responsibility for tackling crime between government, business and citizens for all crime types but it seems to me that nowhere is this debate more important than in relation to cyber crime.

I’ve written that technology has huge potential to reduce crime but it’s clearly impossible for criminal justice systems to manage myriad cyber threats effectively given resources, expertise and other pressures. It’s also clear that citizens are far less responsible and capable in relation to managing their own cyber-security than they are in protection their physical property and persons. But will – and should – business take on all the burdens of preventing cyber-crime, and what is the right regulatory framework to encourage effective cyber-crime prevention?

There is something slightly uncomfortable about leaving companies (particularly smaller ones) to manage these threats alone – and to leave many serious offences unpunished – but the alternative of vast national cyber crime agencies seems less appetising than highly tailored and expert support for specific and carefully defined government roles.

2: How much punishment can society now afford?

If politicians believe the myth that you can have tough sentences but not use them, they will continue to ramp up sentence lengths and put pressure on an already overburdened system rather than investing more effective preventative policing measures, interventions to support would be and current offenders away from crime, and steps to reduce criminal opportunities through product and environmental design.

Crime must face consequences in order to satisfy public pressures, to ensure ‘justice’ (whatever that illusive concept means!) and to maintain a degree of deterrence. But given the vast slew of evidence about the ineffectiveness of tough punishment as a means of preventing crime and saving future victims, smart countries are thinking about how they can rebalance spending away from warehousing prisoners for ever longer periods, particularly for those offenders who are a much lower risk to society. The disproportionate impact of tougher sentencing on ethnic minorities makes this issue particularly urgent, but the right strategy for ‘decarceration’ requires an astute management of politics as well as practical considerations.

3: How can we better predict and resource criminal justice system workloads?

Small changes can have big impacts on correction system workloads – as evidenced in the change in prisoner numbers resulting from Australia’s bail law reforms. Many countries – the Netherlands and the UK are two strong examples – have developed reasonable ways of anticipating the impact on court and corrections workloads but too often even these countries announce new policies before their costs and benefits are properly thought through. In a world of scarce resources, governments can’t afford to leap before they look so must develop models even more sophisticated than those currently in existence, and ideally find ways of testing policy reform impacts before launching them at scale then finding them impossible to reverse if they have perverse consequences.

Linked to this, we need to match local resources to real levels of demand. Tom Kirschmaier and others at the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance have been examining police funding in England and Wales and found that the current system of area based funding still bears very little relation to true patterns of demand. The same is true everywhere, as far as I know. Where countries are rapidly taking away funding, it is equally imperative that government’s develop early warning systems to spot issues before they become full-blown crisis. Without this, they will simply cut too far (as happened in UK prisons) then end up spending more to make up lost ground. The Institute for Government has developed some basic dashboards for the UK but other governments will need to go into further depth while avoiding bureaucratic performance management nightmares.

4: Do we have the right work forces to reduce crime and support justice?

The question of whether the various professions and employees working in the world’s criminal justice systems is often neglected. But we are on the verge of facing some fundamental questions about the future of all professions, as an increasing proportion of work previously carried out by humans is automated and algorithmic decision-making becomes increasingly accurate.

The hype about automation can, of course, be over-blown but even without it our police, prison, and legal professions are changing rapidly. New specialisms are emerging all the time, and the idea of ‘omni-competence’ (a policing ideal forged in the era of self-policing citizens) is no longer tenable in any area. Domestic violence specialists, digital investigators, drug court judges and so forth are usually better at what they do than the generalists they have replaced but specialization has created fragmentary forces.

Old models of pay and progression are no longer fit for purpose because they incentivize time served and broad-based skills. Traditional management models are rarely neither sufficiently fluid or powerful to meet the new challenge of matching specialist skills to incoming demands, and building cohesive interdisciplinary teams.

Experience suggests that workforce reforms are most likely to succeed when they are led by the professions themselves but politicians do need to nudge and support action. Developments already underway in UK policing led by the College of Policing are well worth watching: there will be mistakes but there is a clear acceptance that the profession must reform itself. Likewise, lessons can be learned from judiciary-led reforms, whether that is problem-solving courts or the judicial leadership of reforms that reduced court backlogs in Victoria, Australia.

5: What is the right approach to illegal markets?

2017 is the year that Canada legalises marijuana, a sign that the global tide is turning against blanket prohibitions on drugs. The success of Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream and Neil Wood’s book Good Cop: Bad War are a reflection of a broader shift that has seen prominent individuals like George Soros and Richard Branson start campaigning overtly to end prohibition.

The end of the drugs war consensus is to be welcomed – but in truth countries need to work together to work out exactly what flavour of decriminalisation or legalisation will get the best results. The job of setting up the right regulatory framework for legal drugs is challenging and we must learn from each other regimes and interventions that will minimise harms around drug use while also tackling the perverse consequences that have accompanied the ‘war on drugs’.

The same issues frankly exist around a range of markets, both illegal and ‘grey’. Gambling, prostitution, and human trafficking are all areas where there is an urgent need to find new regulatory approaches that recognise that banning an activity does not stop it from happening. Legalisation will not always be the answer but wherever illegal or morally contentious markets exist, policymakers and police will need to broaden their toolkits to manage demand and reduce harms. This is an area where a new discipline needs to be created, supported by a mix of private and public money.


Finding the right answer to each of these questions will require a careful balancing of political and practical considerations. These are debates about ‘what works’ but also about values: do we value liberty over security, punishment over prevention, the interests of today’s taxpayers over those of their children? Yet despite the myriad differences across developed countries, these are questions that cannot be ducked if we are to make further progress on reducing crime and delivering effective, humane and sustainable justice systems.


Blog posts in the Criminal Justice category are kindly sponsored by Get the Data which provides Social Impact Analytics to enable organisations to demonstrate their impact on society. GtD has no editorial influence on the contents of this site.

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