Discussing Historic Crime Prevention In The Uk Criminology Essay

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Crime prevention has a long history in the UK and it was not until the 1980's that situational crime prevention really came to prominence as a means of preventing/reducing crime levels. This essay will address the period up until that point and explain why the rise in situational crime prevention occurred and explore the factors leading to its emergence. It will do this by tracing the historical developments in crime prevention over the 20th century.

Crime prevention over the 20th century

Towards the beginning of the 20th century the British criminal justice system was, according to Hughes & Edwards (2005; 16);

"largely insulated from overt political criticism & public scrutiny, being celebrated for its 'difference', being 'above party politics', 'unique ' in character & best left to 'the experts' "

The post war social democratic welfare state was also committed to social reform & tackling the social causes of criminality and the period was characterised by a feeling of real optimism about the potential to 'usher in an end to poverty, deprivation & discrimination by direct state intervention' (Hughes & Edwards (2005;16). According to Hughes & Edwards; "there was a widespread belief that the political will & scientific means now existed to remould and improve virtually all aspects of society. The new professionals of the welfare state were given the responsibility to intervene in societies whole range of social ills , not least in treating crime and its prevention" (2005;17). The first half of the 20th century could also be summed up as a period of stability in which, according to Gilling;

"the major criminal justice institutions appeared to contain crime. Up until the Second World War, crime rates in Europe remained relatively stable."(Gilling; 1997;73)

He goes onto say that;

"there was therefore little need or incentive to consider extending the responsibility for crime prevention into the community" (Gilling;1997;74)

This period of stability was not to last and crime rates began to rise throughout the 2nd world war period, although this was attributed to the pressures of the war time period and it was expected that normalcy would resume after the war. Normalcy did not resume and the prison population doubled from a pre war 10,000 to 20,000. Still however, there was no feeling that the criminal justice system was unable to cope besides growing support for some fine tuning (Gilling;1997;74).

The fine tuning aforementioned would come in the form of; sounder research into the causes of crime; technological innovation to aid the police and juvenile justice reform focusing on preventive intervention aimed at families in need (Gilling;1997;74)

By the end of the 1970's the main finding to emerge from the increased research into the problem of crime prevention was that current policies and practices in place were largely ineffective in reducing levels of crime (Brody;1976; Sentencing)(Clarke&Hough;1980; Policing)

This optimism of the first half of the century and the feeling that society's ills could be cured had come to an end. In the second half of the 20th century the welfare state had come to be seen as a failure in the face of rising levels of recorded crime, lack of efficiency, growing awareness of the costs of crime & an increasing recognition of the fact that the criminal justice system could only have a limited effect on controlling crime (Hughes & Edwards; 2005; 17)

What could the government do? What works?

In 1982 the Home Office conducted the first ever National Crime Survey and it became quite apparent that, as Gilling (1997) put its;

"the vast majority of crimes went either unreported or unrecorded, and thus their prevention lay beyond the reaches and best efforts of the criminal justice system" (Gilling;1997;80)

In march 1982 the lord chief justice gave a speech in the house of lords which focused on looking outwith the criminal justice system for solutions to the rising crime rates (Gilling;1997;83)

It now became apparent that a little 'fine tuning' was not going to solve the problems facing the criminal justice system. The researchers in the home office in the period favoured the view of criminality as opportunity, drawing from ideas such as defensible space, environmental criminology (environmental determinants of crime), routine activity theory, rational choice theory and the 'broken windows' thesis. Such ideas came to dominate the Bramshill conference in 1982, held to find a new approach to crime prevention. The conference came to associate situational crime prevention with opportunity reduction. Aside from dominating the Bramshill conference, such ideologies gained more support when the Interdepartmental working group on crime reduction published their report going as far to say that;

"this "situational" approach affords the best immediate prospect for significant crime reduction" (Home office 1983; 1)

According to Stern (1987) the Bramshill conference served to provide situational crime prevention with "the seal of legitimacy as a major new element in British crime policy" (Stern;1987;209)

This was reflected in the Home office circular published in 1984 that stated that;

"a primary objective of the police has always been the prevention of crime. However, since some of the factors affecting crime lie outside the control or direct influence of the police, crime prevention cannot be left to them alone… Preventing crime is a task for the whole community" (Home office;1984;1)

The circular also argued that the Situational approach offered the greatest prospect for success.

What is situational Crime Prevention?

Situational crime prevention basically works around the premise that 'if we cannot remove crime from our society we can at least make it more difficult to commit'. Hughes & Edwards describe situational crime prevention as "opportunity reduction, such as the installation of preventive technologies in both private and public spheres" (2005; 17). According to South;

"Situational crime prevention focuses on the management, design and manipulation of the built physical environment in order to reduce the opportunity to commit crime and increase the risk of detection if deterrent fails. (South; 1987:42)

Situational crime prevention is more concerned with the environment than the people who commit the crimes. Gilling says this about situational crime prevention;

"It seeks to change the structure of criminal opportunities that are perceived to lie in phenomena located within the physical environment. It aims to do this principally either by physical security measures, which rely to a great extent upon technology supported by publicity and incentives to use it; or by measures which increase the costs of crime (by increasing the risk of apprehension) and reduce the benefits (for example, by property marking) (Gilling; 1997:5)

The rise of a choice model & its implications (and other developments)

As previously mentioned around the time of the Bramshill conference there was a rise in ideologies that viewed criminality, and criminals, in terms of opportunity, rational choice & environmental determinism. What are the implications of such a mode of thinking? If you view criminality through this particular lens and think of crime as opportunity and the criminal as a rational actor, as the home office did in the early 1980's, then the solution seems obvious. If you remove the opportunity and increase the negative consequences of crime, i.e. increase the possibility of being caught and reduce the benefits of crime, then the rational criminal *should* be deterred. This is the reasoning behind rational choice theory. If the environment can be adapted in such a way that the fruits of criminal behaviour (things to be gained) no longer out weight the cons (high change of being caught) then the criminal will see that it is not worth it. The 'Broken windows' thesis developed by George L. Kelling argues that if a window is left broken in a neighbourhood then more windows will soon be broken, because it gives the impression that no one cares about the broken windows. The theory was tested by Phillip Zimbardo, in 1969, in an experiment where one car was left in the Bronx, without plates & with its hood up. Another comparable car was left on a street in Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was attacked within 10 minutes of its abandonment. The car in Pala Alto lay untouched for over a week until Zimbardo smashed part of the car with a sledgehammer. Within a few hours, of Zimbardo smashing the car, the car had been fully destroyed. This theory suggested that the environment played a considerable role in criminality and that it could be regulated to control and prevent crime. The emergence of such ideas helped to develop situational crime prevention initiatives (Wilson & Kelling 1982;402). The idea of defensible space developed by Oscar Newman, drawing on work from Jacobs, argued that the designs of certain communities hampered the residents' opportunities for surveillance and forms of informal social control and thus led to a higher likelihood of criminality. This idea also helped to contribute to the rise in situational crime prevention, like the 'broken windows' thesis, by suggesting that the environment could be altered in some way to reduce crime & deviance. The Home Office tested this theory in relation to vandalism in 1980 (Wilson;1980) and although finding that social variables has been underestimated, still suggested that it might fit better with the prevention of other crimes (Wilson;1980). After adopting this stance at the Bramshill conference this is the very affect that the government attempted to achieve with situational crime prevention methods.


At the beginning of the 20th century crime levels were stable and the traditional criminal justice institutions, such as the police, the courts & prisons were seen to be containing crime. This period didn't last and, as the 2nd world war came and went, crime rates continued to rise. Eventually there was the realisation that the criminal justice system might not be fit for purpose and some fine tuning was attempted. With further research into the problem it was established that the traditional criminal justice institutions were actually ineffective in reducing crime. This led to a crisis of confidence in the criminal justice system and when the first ever British national crime survey confirmed that the majority of crime goes unrecorded it became apparent that the prevention of a large percentage of crime was out with the reach of the police and other criminal justice institutions. In order to prevent such crimes crime prevention would have to expand outwith the traditional methods. The government at the time held a conference in 1982 to decide how this could be best achieved. Ideologies at the time were being dominated by an opportunistic view of criminality & environmental criminology. These included Oscar Newman's defensible space thesis, routine activity theory, rational choice theory & Wilson & Kelling's 'broken windows' thesis. These ideas came to dominate the Bramshill conference and it was concluded that the various methods of prevention, focusing on reducing opportunities for committing crime & reducing the benefits associated with crime by altering the physical environment that it would take place within, all falling under the umbrella of 'Situational crime prevention" offered the best potential for reducing and preventing crime that was outwith the reach of the police. Therefore it was a combination of the loss of confidence in the traditional crime control methods leading to the realisation that 'nothing works' coupled with a rise in ideologies viewing criminality as opportunistic and criminals as rational actors that led to a rise in the use of situational crime prevention methods.