Criminology’s Dirty Little Secret: How Dutch criminologists almost completely failed to pick up on the decline in crime

De Waard, Jaap (June 2017). Criminology’s Dirty Little Secret: How Dutch criminologists almost completely failed to pick up on the decline in crime.

‘It is pretty embarrassing to criminology as a profession that nobody has come close to explaining the huge drops in crime experienced in industrialized countries in the last decade or so.’ This lament by Farrell et al. (2008) has set the tone for the following discussion. The international science of criminology has clearly been remiss when it comes to explaining why crime rates have declined. Only a small number of criminologists have focused on this subject in the last few years. The present contribution seeks to address the following points: (1) Have crime rates declined? Where did crime decline, and to what extent? What types of crimes have declined? What statistical resources allow us to say anything on this subject? (2) Why did crime rates decline? What plausible explanations can we provide for this reduction? We will assess several hypotheses on the basis of existing literature. (3) We will pay special attention to the so-called ‘security hypothesis’, which operates from the premise that the main driving force behind the crime reduction observed in many countries has been the increase in, and improved quality of, large-scale security measures such as immobilizers, burglary prevention measures, private security teams and crime opportunity-reducing measures. (4) Finally, this chapter presents several key conclusions. 

Have crime rates actually gone down? If so, what plausible explanations can we provide for this trend? These are the two main questions that we have answered in this contribution to Gerben Bruinsma’s Festschrift. The first question is easily answered. Yes, there has been a long-term decline in crime in a large number of countries, with regard to both acquisitive crimes and violent crimes. This decline is clear from recorded crime trends, data gleaned from national victimisation surveys, Eurostat records, World Health Organization records, records of A&E departments and data obtained from the International Crime Victims Survey. In sum, there has indeed been an international decline in crime.

The second question is considerably harder to answer. What plausible explanations can we provide? This question did not receive serious attention from the academic community until quite recently. In other words, the answer to this question is still a scientific work in progress. Even so, there is quite a significant number of available explanations for the decline in crime. Our inventory resulted in a wide range of explanations. As was to be expected, there is not one single explanation that can be presented as a one-size-fits-all answer. Explanations for the decline in crime tend to focus exclusively on crime within one single country. As a result, such explanations tend to be specific to one country and its particular crime issues. Under those circumstances, it can be hard to make general statements on explanations that can plausibly be applied to several countries. Nonetheless, considering the similarities in how crime has been developing in a great many countries, we must seek a coreexplanation that can apply to all of these countries.

One hypothesis had a strong showing in a recent research synthesis (Farrell, Tilley and Tseloni, 2014) of the most common hypotheses of the available explanations. We are referring to the security hypothesis, which operates from the premise that the driving force behind the observed international decline in crime has been the increased use and improved quality of large-scale security measuressuch as immobilisers, burglary prevention measures, private security and opportunity-restricting measures. These measures mainly relate to acquisitive crime and to a lesser extent to violent crime. It is clear that more research will be required to help us arrive at more robust explanations, particularly with regard to violent crimes and declining juvenile delinquency. Prevention continues to be an essential precondition for reducing the opportunity to commit crime easily and repeatedly without being noticed. Such preventive measures must grow in tandem with social trends. The emphasis will increasingly be on the social changes arising from technological developments and internationalisation, which will require timely investments in prevention. These investments are needed to help prevent a situation whereby people and companies have excellent locks on their front doors, only to be robbed of their money online. In realising this aim, we can learn a great deal from the current insights that provide the most valid explanations for the decline in ‘classical’ crime.