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It's Better to Prevent Crime Than to Clear Up Afterwards

10/06/2014 11:18 BST | Updated 10/08/2014 10:59 BST

A new report puts the total cost of crime to the UK economy at a staggering £124bn a year. That's the equivalent of £4,700 for every household, and is more than the total health, education or defence budgets. The vast majority of that money is spent clearing up after crime has happened including the cost of police investigations, taking criminals through the courts, locking them up in jail, and paying out insurance to victims. Reoffending by young criminals costs around £10bn a year, more than the cost of staging the Olympic Games. It costs more each year to lock up a young person than to send a child to Eton, and yet seven out of ten young criminals reoffend within twelve months of their release. The system is expensive but isn't effective enough at preventing crime happening in the first place.

Crime against the person including robbery, burglary and assault costs the Government £36.2bn a year according to the latest figures available from the Home Office. Yet we spend only £522m a year preventing that kind of crime, a mere 1.4% of the amount spent on dealing with its consequences. A little more spent on prevention would repay itself many times over by cutting crime levels, generating much needed savings to the public purse.

Across the developed world, volume crime - things like burglary, street robbery, car theft and shoplifting - soared after the 1950s. It rose continually until the mid-1990s, then started to fall and is still falling today. This pattern was pretty much the same whether a country made extensive use of tough measures like prison as in the United States or 'softer' community reparations as in the Nordic countries.

Before the 1950s and the arrival of mass consumer goods, there wasn't much in people's houses to steal so crime of this kind was much lower. With the rapid increase in the number of TV sets, cars and car radios, video recorders, and later on mobile phones, iPods and laptops the growing range of things worth stealing led to an increase in acquisitive crime. What stopped it in the 1990s wasn't a sudden improvement in morality, it was the improvement in crime- prevention technology which made things harder to steal. More people installed burglar alarms, car immobilisers or used mobile phone security. Making crime more difficult played a major part in cutting it.

The biggest growth in crime today is internet-based. We're witnessing an explosion of online fraud, identity theft, hacked bank accounts and child pornography. Business advisers PWC estimate that cyber crime is now bigger than the entire global drugs trade, and yet there is far too little focus on prevention of the kind that cut acquisitive crime. We could, for instance, require internet service providers to alert customers whenever their computer or other devices have been compromised; currently they don't even though they can tell from usage patterns when major hacking operations are under way.

The present Government is going backwards on preventing violent crime. Projects like the St Giles Trust's SOS Croydon, which successfully diverts young offenders away from violent gangs, have struggled to compete against the likes of Serco and G4S to win funding. Across the country, youth offending teams - professionals who help steer young offenders away from crime - are struggling with shrinking budgets and fewer staff, leaving more young offenders to drift back into criminality. Partnership working between the police, councils, probation services and local communities, introduced by the last Labour Government to prevent crime, have shrunk under the present Government.

A wholesale switch towards preventing crime would cost the public purse far less in the long run. In his recent review for the Labour Party, former Police Commissioner Lord Stevens warned against the danger of retreating to a reactive model of policing. He is right. With crime, as with health, prevention is better - and cheaper - than cure.

Preventing a single murder would save £1.7m in the cost of investigating, prosecuting and jailing the murderer. Cutting youth reoffending rates by 10% would save £1bn a year. Cutting high-volume crime against individuals and households by just 1% would save £362m, enough to reinstate the 10,000 front-line police officers cut by the present Government.

As part of its policy review, Labour is exploring a range of ideas. A voluntary traffic-light rating for new products could warn consumers how stealable they are, encouraging manufacturers to build in anti-theft mechanisms as happened with car-theft league tables in the 1990s. An increase in checks on shops that unlock electronic goods like laptops and mobile phones would make sure they're not unlocking stolen goods. The US Second Chance Act offers offenders a clear choice when they leave prison - keep out of crime and get support to steer your life back on track, but drift back into crime and face much tougher punishment. This has led to reductions in the prison population in the States and we should look at such models here too. Reoffending rates should be a key measure of a Government's success or failure on crime, while prisons should be more accountable to local communities, incentivised to reform prisoners and assessed by how much they cut reoffending by former inmates.

The Tory-led Government's complacency on crime is misplaced while crime is still too high and costs us all too much. By focusing on prevention we can cut the number of victims, cut crime, and cut the overall cost to the country as well.

Steve Reed MP is the Shadow Minister for Crime Prevention, Jack Dromey MP is the Shadow Minister for Policing

Notes

UK Peace Index 2012: murder £1.3bn, other violent crime £45bn, theft £4bn, burglary £5.3bn.

Total violent crime £124bn, or £4700 for every household [link]

Costs per type of offence (unit): [link]

Reoffending annual cost: £9.5-13bn. [link]

The latest figures available from the Home Office are from The Economic and Social Costs of Crime Against Individuals and Households 2003/4, available here: http://bit.ly/1oHGAN1