Crime prevention attractive to policy-makers

Why are opportunity reduction-based approaches to crime prevention attractive to policy-makers and what are the main problems associated with their theoretical bases and practical implication? First this essay will explain what is meant by opportunity reduction based approaches (ORBA). It will give reasons why these approaches are attractive to policy makers and link this to a broader political context. The theoretical base will be examined in relation to social construction and also pointing out what crimes this approach doesn't address.

The practical implication of ORBA are analysed such as the problem of displacement and the inequality this highlights. Then finally the uses, abuses and human rights issues regarding certain aspects of the technology associated with this method of crime prevention. ORBA are part of situational crime prevention which manipulates the environment as a method of trying to prevent crime. Situational research is divided into two measures, (1) increasing the chances of being caught and (2) reducing physical opportunities for crime (Clarke 1980).

It is the latter that this essay is primarily concerned with, although the two measures do overlap. For example, installing closed-circuit television (CCTV) will reduce the opportunity for crime and increased the likely hood of being caught. Cohen and Felson (1979) suggest that three elements are needed to provide opportunity, these are, (1) a specific situation, (2) a target and (3) the absence of effective guardians, affecting one or more of these elements will in theory reduce or remove opportunity.

Opportunity reducing measures include such things as target hardening, for instance increased building and car security or increasing surveillance in the form of CCTV (Bottoms 1990) or security guards in public and semi public areas. From the early 1980's opportunity reduction based approaches were attractive to policy makers. They appealed to the common sense notion that if you provide opportunity this 'invites' criminals. Margaret Thatcher herself said 'We have to be careful that we don't make it easy for the criminal' (September 1990 quoted in O'Malley 1992).

There was a succession of publications and adverts from the Home Office that pointed to offending being opportunist rather than a predisposition (Croall 1998). This common sense thinking was appealing to policy makers for the following reasons; first it was a simple explanation. It acknowledged a spatial distribution of crime (Bottoms and Wiles 1992) meaning that crime prevention measures could be targeted at certain 'crime ridden' areas. It also placed the emphasis on the offender, who chose to commit crime and the victim for 'allowing' it to happen by not taking the necessary precautions.

In a broader sense it was part of broader political aspiration of reducing state intervention by placing responsibility for crime prevention with government agencies and the public, thus making government more cost effective. It was as Garland (1997) suggests 'governance at a distance'. He pointed out that government were able to exert power and control in the form of budgets, standards, effectiveness and efficiency with the agencies having almost imaginary agency.

This was because they were forced to work within tight budgets to particular standards, so although they were 'free' to work in areas they thought necessary, the government still restricted what they could achieve. Thus meaning that agencies also placed the responsibility of crime prevention on to the public because 'severely restricted police resources and the sheer frequency of crime means that any improvement in the situation will rely heavily on property owners accepting responsibility for their own property and valuables' (Hall 1986 p453) A strong criticism of the theoretical base of this approach comes from Currie (1991).

He suggests that the market society of capitalism, of which the ideologies of managerialism is a part, actually promotes crime by five mechanisms. These result in increasing inequality and economic deprivation, due to lack of jobs, low paying jobs or no jobs at all. A weakening of support within the community, as everyone is in the same boat with very little resources. Fragmenting the family, as people have to move away to find jobs. Withdrawing public provision, as benefits are cut, and promoting a culture of competition for status resources and consumption of goods.

These mechanisms together result in 'social impoverishment' and economic depression, these produce stresses which are said to result in crime. Clarke (1980) rejects this idea, suggesting that if you look at the pre and post war poverty rates eradicating poverty did not reduce crime rates. There was of course crime before the market society described here and crime was still a feature of that, so although this may give possible reasons for particular crimes it seems unlikely that by doing away with market society that crime would disappear. Young (1986) attacks this view of criminals as being those who are impoverished.

He says that 'to blame the poor for their criminality is to blame the victim'. Instead he points to the real criminals as being the ruling classes, suggesting that criminal law is a direct expression of their concern to protect themselves. This turns the idea of ORBA on its head, implying that the real function of the police is the social control of the lower classes. This also attacks the theoretical base that criminals choose to commit crime, instead suggesting that the definitions of 'crime' and 'criminal' are merely a social construction of the upper classes.

ORBA are also only able to deal with street crime such as theft and burglary, it cannot impact upon crime such as domestic abuse, child abuse and assaults occurring in the home. Target hardening, CCTV and security personnel are for the prevention of the criminal entering the property or protection of public space. In fact when you look at aspects such as target hardening there is an assumption that the home is safe and somewhere to be defended when in actuality it may be the opposite. Stanko (1990) points out that crime prevention revolves round public space and therefore focuses on crime which is visible to the public.

He suggests the reason for this is because it is easier to provide a leaflet with the advice to avoid certain areas, or check the back seats of cars than it is of advising women about 'trustworthy men. Bright (1991) comments that 'while situational crime prevention, theoretically, can reduce the estimated 70% of recorded crime thought to be opportunistic, it is unable to prevent many violent crimes such as some categories of assault, domestic violence, child abuse and racially motivated crime' (quoted in Walklate p316).

Of course this also links back to again to why ORBA are attractive to policy makers as it is easier to provide legislation for public areas and also public crime is visible and it makes more political sense to tackle crime which the public can see. This means that opportunity reduction based approaches are theoretically and practically limited to attempting to prevent crime in the public domain. In the practical application of ORBA's there is the issue of displacement to consider. Displacement is based on the concern that if a criminal is prevented from committing a criminal offence in one place, he simply moves on to another.

In other words there is a concern that the problem hasn't really gone away. John Tisshaw works for Newham Emergency and Security Services, which installs facial recognition units in London. He suggests that crime in the areas where cameras were installed had fallen 35% and that crime in the surrounding area had only increased 10%. The increase in the surrounding area is illustrative of displacement; it also appears to indicate that overall crime had reduced by 25%, however caution is urged as these figures may be misleading.

For example Reppetto (1976) suggests that displacement does not just occur in a different area, it can also occur at a different time, using a different method or even changing to a different type of offence (cited in Clarke (1980). Clarke (1980) and other criminologist emphases that it may be less difficult testing criminal movement from one area to another, but extremely difficult from one type of crime to another, this isn't helped by the lack of research into the effectiveness of prevention.