Do not let fear of crime dictate policy

Recently published figures reveal that crime apparently went up
while also simultaneously going down, the muddle blamed on a change
in the way offences are recorded. “The risk of being a victim
remains at its lowest for 20 years,” insisted David Blunkett, the
home secretary. Fear of crime – to the extent that it seriously
inhibits daily life – has been a regular motif in academic research
and media coverage for more than 40 years. This time was no
exception. “These figures will come as no surprise to the millions
of peopleÉ who suffer daily from crime or the fear of crime,”
said Oliver Letwin, shadow home secretary.

It is this fear of crime which gives Blunkett license to send, this
year, a staggering 80,000 men and women – many of them mentally ill
– to a prison system designed for infinitely less. It also
justifies a nasty and punitive approach to social policy which
feeds into xenophobia, racism and the demonisation of the

The origins of this propaganda about the “fear factor” can be
traced back to the 1960s in the US. Then, rich, white and alarmed
Americans voiced concern about declining standards in reaction both
to the “youthquake” taking place and a series of landmark decisions
which gave the poor and black people rights, including the right to
a lawyer when arrested.

In the UK, this general concern was rapidly transformed into “a
problem of individual vulnerability”. In a report soon to be
published in the British Journal of Criminology, Dr
Stephen Farrall of Keele University argues that the fear of crime
has been further hugely exaggerated as a result of poorly framed
questions posed for decades in various surveys.

Research has always claimed that around a third of people in the UK
are “very” or “fairly” worried about the fear of crime. Dr
Farrall’s new methodology puts the figure at 8 per cent.

At present, the false belief that we are all daily cowed and
intimidated by the shadow of the criminal, encourages passivity and
permits intolerance. It is the poor who are proportionately most
often the victims of crime. Cleaning up litter, reclaiming and
developing open spaces, investing in parks, tackling graffiti,
reintroducing a visible police presence on the streets should be
seen in the context of improving the quality of life – instead of
constantly discussed as part of a pessimistic narrative in which
the criminal rules OK, while the rest of us quake.

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