Crime: the numbers game
Good news about the crime figures for England and Wales yesterday, wasn't it? According to the double-page headline in the Daily Mail: "A knife attack every 4 minutes."
Sorry, wrong headline. But even The Guardian found something to worry about: "Crime rates expected to soar as economic difficulties deepen." Same figures, different headlines. Confused? So am I.
Here's how the Home Office put it in its announcement yesterday: "Crime in England and Wales fell by ten per cent since the previous year according to the 2007/08 British Crime Survey, and fell by nine per cent according to police recorded crime statistics."
Over the same period, said the Home Office, the risk of becoming a victim of crime has fallen from 24 to 22 per cent, and both overall crime and the risk of victimisation are now at their lowest ever levels since 1981. Violent crime, vandalism and vehicle-related thefts have all fallen (by 12 per cent, 10 per cent, and 11 per cent) and domestic burglary has remained stable.
Which all sounds pretty encouraging, doesn't it? So why, in heaven's name, do we read almost every other day of another ghastly knife crime, resulting in the death of another teenager on a city street? Well, for one thing, the survey on which these latest statistics are based doesn't talk to people under the age of 16 - so they will be of scant comfort to the families of Sunday Essiet, Amro Elbadawi, Lyle Tulloch, Arsema Dawit and David Idowu, to name but five of London's 21 knife murder victims so far this year. (The Home Office is now considering extending the remit of the British Crime Survey to include under 16s.)
And of course, our perception of crime (two-thirds of us think crime rates are going up) does not stem from a cool analysis of the latest official data: we read the papers, we watch the telly, and we gossip over the garden fence. And fear of crime can be nearly as damaging to the social fabric as crime itself.
As it happens, I was chairing a debate organised by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at Kings College, London, last night, to discuss the government's record on youth crime. (Its new Youth Crime Action Plan published earlier this week promised another £100 million "to stop young people from starting lives of crime" - to be spent on better prevention and support for victims; expansion of family intervention projects; and increasing the number of ASBOs and parenting orders.)
What the record shows is that since Labour came to power 11 years ago, the amount of money pumped into the youth justice system has gone up by no less than 45 per cent in real terms. Over the past few years, the number of first-time young offenders has dropped slightly - by about five per cent - but overall the youth crime picture hasn't changed much. So what happened to all the cash?
Well, most of it seems to have gone on keeping young offenders behind bars. Only about one-third has been spent on the sort of social welfare programmes that youth justice practitioners believe are most likely to reduce the number of young offenders.
Talk to the professionals, and they tell you that many young offenders are themselves victims, whether of abuse in the home or of crime outside it. They may have mental health problems, they may be homeless, or alcohol or drug abusers - yes, they need to be punished if they offend, but they also need help. And sometimes, perhaps, as with parenting orders, it's not clear whether what's on offer is meant as a punishment or as help. (We're going to be discussing some of these issues on tonight's programme, by the way.)
So what would you do about youth crime?