Written by Nick Ross, Former BBC Crimewatch Presenter

Crime is fascinating and it’s always in the news. Yet surprisingly, I believe, most of what we’re told is wrong.

It took me a long time to find this out. When we first started Crimewatch back in 1984, I took it for granted that the job of the police was to arrest our way out of trouble, and that the way to deal with crime was through the courts.

Yet the more I looked at ordinary crime, the sort that affected most of us, nothing quite matched what I’d assumed.

These were the everyday car thefts, burglaries, muggings and assaults, which would never have made headlines but, back in the Eighties, seemed almost routine. The courts were swamped and prisons were overflowing. And, intriguingly, none of the theories about what causes crime – deprivation, discipline, parenting or even morals – seemed to fit the facts.

I became interested in research by crime prevention experts, using the sort of rigour that medical researchers use to understand disease epidemics.

And then, in 1999, my Crimewatch co-presenter Jill Dando was murdered.

It was a senseless tragedy which shocked the nation, and I was determined something positive should come of it. The following year, along with Jill’s fiancé Alan Farthing and other colleagues, we founded the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science at University College London.

Its purpose was simple – to find ways to reduce victimisation. We recruited across lots of disciplines, from architecture through to engineering, psychology and zoology. It made us look at crime in a completely different way.

For a start, most crime is not even caused by ‘criminals’. At least, not in the accepted sense. The world isn’t made up of goodies and baddies, angels and devils (although there are a few of each). Crime rates rose when more ordinary people got sucked into it, cutting corners, buying pirated or stolen goods, getting drunk and starting fights.

The more I looked, I found that the so-called ‘root causes’ I once believed in, failed to fit the facts. Take poverty, which everyone assumes is a huge trigger for crime. There is not a lot the police can do to improve the economy. But even if we could make people richer, would it prevent crime? How can poverty explain the huge growth in white-collar crime? And how come the worst crime epidemic in recorded history coincided with the post-war economic miracle?

I came to realise that wealth shared more equally across society brought unintended consequences. Rich people in the past had servants to protect their grand houses, and locked up their tea or silverware to protect them. Now almost every home had things worth stealing, and as more people went out to work, more homes were left empty. At the same time there was more to steal from shops, cars, from people in the street. There was more anonymity, more mobility, more leisure time, more individualism, more alcohol…

The further we looked, the more paradoxes we found. The criminal justice system, which most of us have faith in, turned out to be little more than a breakwater around which the tide of crime ebbed and flowed. In every industrial country, liberal or punitive, crime followed the same trends at roughly the same times.

Not only did most punishments seem to make little difference, but sadly, against all our expectations, even rehabilitation turned out to be far less effective than people like me had supposed.

So why did crime rates go down? And, believe me, they didn’t just go down a bit. They peaked in North America from 1990 and elsewhere from the mid-Nineties – and then they crashed.

In Britain, car burglary crime tumbled by two-thirds, car crime by four-fifths, and murder has fallen to its lowest level in 30 years.

All this has fascinated me. And many answers to crime seem to be hiding in plain view.

Shoplifting only took off when they took away shop counters. It was curbed when retailers put in security. Burglary grew in step with how much we filled our homes with consumer goods, and went down as we put in appropriate security. Violence surged in step with the growth of heavy drinking and gangs, and was tamed by better night-time policing.

And here’s the rub. If we prevent one crime, it doesn’t simply transfer to another target or another place. As acquisitive crime came down, there seems to have been a halo effect on violence, too, with more and more people behaving better.

Of course, there are dozens of complex factors in crime, some very local, some cultural, some global. But one obvious lesson is that we will never simply arrest our way out of trouble. It seems we can control crime by removing temptations to do wrong, and opportunities to get away with it.

If we had thought ahead, we could have designed out many of the vulnerabilities that caused post-war crime to rise. We have already let the genie out of the bottle with computer crime. We need to think ahead, and not just chase the villains once a crime has taken place.
Read more: http://www.thisissomerset.co.uk/Solved-control-crime/story-19281935-detail/story.html#ixzz2WDUUAK00