Despite the headline-grabbing fixation with gun crime, we received some positive crime news this week with the release of the 2011 NSW Crime Statistics.
Among the many statistics in the report, further falls in key property offences were experienced on average in NSW in 2011.
This means that there has now been 11 years of consistent decline in some property crimes.
And we are not just talking minor falls. In 2001 there were 79,345 break-and-enter dwelling offences committed in NSW. In 2011, this number had fallen to 39,407, representing a fall of about 50 percent in 11 years.
In 2001 there were 53,767 motor vehicle thefts recorded in NSW. In 2011 this had fallen to 19,548. This represents a decline of about 64 percent in motor vehicle theft over the past 11 years.
However, there were some areas in the Hunter, like Cessnock, which reported increases in crimes such as burglary, car theft, and stealing from motor vehicles.
It is normally perilous to compare crime data for two separate years more than a decade apart, because the comparison might mask important fluctuations. But it is not a problem in this instance because both offences experienced annual declines between 2001 and 2011.
Crime statistics are often criticised for not reflecting the lived reality. This is particularly true for offences like assault and sexual assault which have low reporting rates. Caution should be exercised when interpreting trends for these offences.
Property offences, such as break and enter dwelling and motor vehicle theft, do not suffer the same problems – largely because of the need to report these crimes for insurance purposes.
This means that we can be confident that the decline in these offences in the last 11 years is an accurate reflection of what is happening in our communities.
We often hear about the “New York Miracle” and the significant crime decline experienced there. Media articles trumpet the virtues of “zero tolerance policing” and other strategies adopted in New York in the mid-1990s.
The falls in crime in NSW have not been met with the same fanfare.
We barely even hear that we have experienced such dramatic falls.
Why do we not celebrate these substantial falls in local crime?
The current wave of gun crime has obviously grabbed media attention. The old adage, “if it bleeds it leads”, still holds true.
Or perhaps we have not celebrated these declines because we are not especially sure of what has caused them.
A group of criminologists from England have called this “criminology’s dirty little secret”. They argue that there has been limited criminological analysis of what has contributed to these trends, which have not just been experienced in NSW but in many western democratic countries.
Through detailed analysis of crime trends and adoption of crime prevention measures, they arrived at the mundane conclusion that improvements in home and car security were critical factors.
This finding is probably no real surprise, but it might partially explain why we have not shown great excitement in these falling crime rates. This explanation challenges the argument that all crime is caused by complex socioeconomic circumstances.
It also does little for those pressing for more police and tougher sentences. If property crimes can be prevented by simply reducing the opportunities for crime, then there is little value in “tough on crime” campaigns.
Irrespective of the exact causes, there are numerous reasons to celebrate the falls in these offences.
There are substantially fewer victims who have had to suffer the trauma of having their home burgled or their car stolen in the past 11 years.
This has significant implications for perceptions of crime, which in turn might positively influence political debate. The traditional “law and order auction” does not seem to have the same purchase as it once did and this could in part be due to the fewer victims of these volume offences.
The falling property offences should also mean that fewer criminal justice resources need to be dedicated to investigating these offences and punishing offenders. Police are required to attend fewer crime scenes and pursue fewer property offenders.
Given the considerable financial and personal costs associated with the bulging NSW prison system, less pressure on imprisoning property offenders will be welcomed.
We might even see reductions in our car and contents insurance premiums – now that would be a miracle.