Crooks and stats: Time for a reality check on crime in Victoria

Many media commentators are the journalistic equivalent of tent boxers. They have learnt their craft well and understand their audience’s demands: A violent conflict and a simple resolution.

Tent boxers, like media commentators, know how to throw a punch then cover up. Canberra Show, 2013. Credit:Rohan Thompson

The tent boxer long ago discovered what works. A simple combination of punches – no fancy stuff –left, left, then right. Bang, bang, bang, then cover up and don’t get hurt.

The media commentator usually has a similar three-punch combination, with every issue distilled to simple formula: 1) problem, 2) how authorities deal with the problem, 3) blame someone. Then if there is any flak, cover up.

In this version there is always an answer and there is always someone to blame. Honest mistakes and differences of opinion do not exist in this black-and-white world. You agree with me or you are wrong – left, left, right – then bring on the next contender.

Take global warming. To some commentators it is a conspiracy led by bongo-drumming beatnik professors looking for government grants to study Emperor Penguins. To others it is a capitalist conspiracy that will lead us all to drown in seas the temperature of chicken soup.

Columnists discussing who to blame next or Jack Lemmon as newspaper ace Hildy Johnson in The Front Page?Credit:Universal Studios

COVID-19 is a global disease so the blame must be sheeted home somewhere. Was it the fault of Chinese bats, a batty US president or Victorian Premier Dan Andrews batting away questions? Take your pick.

People die but industry must remain healthy, say the people who think the good old days were when children with brooms went up chimneys and men with flat hats emptied toilets.

Then we come to law and order. The argument goes like this: Crime is out of control and the government has failed us. They have let crazed criminals settle on our fair shores, failed to provide police with enough resources (alternatively police are too weak to do their job), appointed soft, left-leaning judges who think Gandhi was a bully and have turned prisons into giant holiday camps run by the modern equivalent of Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz.

Young offenders at a Juvenile Justice Centre or kids at a holiday camp? You be the judge.Credit:The Age

Let us leave sideshow alley for the “real world”, an expression favoured by the permanently outraged who bang away on their keyboards from holiday houses even when distracted by the gardener doing the lawns. (My personal favourite is the interstate columnist who loved to write about how police in Victoria were too politically correct to deal with African gangs, when the closest she came to a Melbourne crime was to mislay her phone charger in the Tullamarine Qantas Club.)

Don Weatherburn is no tub-thumper. For 30 years he was director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Research and is now Professor at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.

He has a cute, old-fashioned method. Gather the facts and then draw a conclusion rather than gathering the facts that support your conclusion.

He and colleague Sara Rahman have written a book called The Vanishing Criminal: Causes of decline in Australia’s crime rate.

What? Decline? Clearly they have gone mad because we all know crime is out of control, which is why we need more police, tougher judges and more prisons.

The trouble is Weatherburn and Rahman have facts on their side and assert that extra police and more prisons matter little.

Weatherburn says while governments know the Clint Eastwood school of crime control doesn’t work, they invest billions in the punishment business. “It is a cheap political response to a serious problem,” he says.

Professor Don Weatherburn.Credit:Quentin Jones

Actually it is anything but cheap. According to government figures we had 7082 prisoners in the Victorian prison system in December last year – an increase of more than 50 per cent from 4537 in December 2010. But for the first time we have seen a drop of around 1000 prisoners in 12 months and the lowest figure since April 2017. Did the COVID lockdowns slow crime? Did delays to court times increase bail? Or are we too busy watching Stan and Netflix to indulge in the occasional knife fight?

Prisoner numbers plateaued at just over 8000 a year before the pandemic. And the total number of offenders under Corrections Victoria in jail or serving non-custodial sentences has dropped 25 per cent in 2020.

The annual cost of running the state’s prisons is more than $1.6 billion, with each inmate costing nearly $300 a day. A new prison bed in a new jail costs around $1 million. And that is without a fluffy pillow.

The government has allocated $1.8 billion to a prison construction program that includes a 1200-place maximum-security jail next to Barwon Prison (even the crooks are leaving Melbourne for regional Victoria).

“Tougher penalties don’t work because most people don’t commit crime and those who do think they won’t be caught,” says Weatherburn.

He says the national obsession with building prisons came 10 years after crime peaked. (The Australian Bureau of Statistics figures released a few days ago show the national number of recorded offenders was the lowest since it started keeping records in 2008-09. Public order offences have nearly halved since 2013-14.)

High-volume property crimes such as burglary peaked around the year 2000 and national assault figures started to drop in 2008, with the murder rate declining from the 1980s.

Not that it is all rose petals and caftans. Fraud and some sex crimes are rising. Assaults in Victoria are still high, with half family-related.

The Vanishing Criminal by Don Weatherburn and Sara Rahman is published by Melbourne University Press.

Weatherburn says the number of first offenders has dropped while habitual criminals continue to offend. (There is no JobKeeper for crooks.)

The book examines 16 theories and concludes crime prevention and community attitudes, not detection and punishment, lead the change.

Weatherburn and Rahman’s research confirms what police have said for years: you can’t arrest your way out of a problem.

Here are the top 10 reasons for crime’s decline:

  • John Howard: In just over 10 years in the 1980s and ’90s, 74 people were killed and 81 injured in seven mass shootings. After the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre (in which 35 people died), Howard initiated a national gun buy back. Do the maths: Less military-style guns means less multiple murders.
  • The Golden Scalpel: Emergency medicine has improved. Weatherburn and Rahman say some who would have become murder statistics survived because of medical intervention, a theory backed by homicide investigators. But 1) and 2) can’t explain a nationwide 50 per cent drop in the homicide rate since the 1980s.
  • Harvey Norman: Weatherburn says the stolen property market has collapsed. “Who wants to buy a Playstation 2?” He says the cheap price of electronic goods has destroyed the “got it down the pub” market and proof of identity at pawn shops has further eroded stolen goods markets. Stolen mobile phones are about as useful as a corkscrew at an AA meeting.
  • Cheers Big Ears: Alcohol has long been linked to assault. The figures show national drinking and assault rates have dropped. Less rounds in the pub means less rounds in the car park.
  • Plastic Fantastic: We carry less cash and therefore there is less to rob. We used to have two bank robberies a week and now we have none. Big armoured vans would arrive at work with large amounts of cash (at The Age that was just to cover the investigative team’s lunch bill) and now we live in the world of the electronic transfer. No one got rich knocking off a 7-11.
  • Big Brother: More security cameras and better home security makes it harder to rob. US experts say COVID-related work-from-home patterns also mean less vacant homes during the day.
  • Smackdown: Heroin use was a major driver of property crime, street assault and robberies as users looked for money to buy the drug. A heroin drought in the early 2000s meant many addicts had no choice but to give up, resulting in a drop in related crimes.
  • Cops get serious: Less crime means police concentrate on repeat offenders. Police, Weatherburn says, are more efficient. He points out that repeated royal commissions in the 1980s and ’90s showed some police “green-lighted” certain crooks to carry out crimes at a time when bribery was a common practice. Once he was taken out for lunch by a NSW detective who offered to pay for inside information on stats to help a private business. “I told him there was no need, as there were published on the website.”
  • Zoom-Zoom: One government policy that has driven down crime is equipping all purchased cars with engine immobilisers. Theft of cars has dropped, although we have the new crime of carjackings for the desperate and dangerous.
  • Fogey Power: Crime is a young person’s game, with the peak age from 15 to 24. Australia’s ageing population means less people are in risk-taking positions. You can’t start a knife fight with a plastic fork while standing in the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord queue and you can’t punch someone’s teeth out if they’ve left them in a glass on the bedroom table. In that demographic, ice is not something you snort but something you put on your knees after a line- dancing class.

The Vanishing Criminal by Don Weatherburn and Sara Rahman is published by Melbourne University Press.

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