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36 How. J. Crim. Just. 1 (1997)

handle is hein.journals/hjcj36 and id is 1 raw text is: 




The Howard Journal Vol 36 No 1. Feb 97
ISSN 0265-5527, pp. 1-13




           What the Next Government

              Should Do About Crime



                           DAVID   DOWNES
        Professor of Social Administration, London School of Economics


Abstract: Criminology is well enough stocked with theory and evidence to offer governments
important leads on how to address problems of crime and criminal careers more effectively. Three
basic assumptions can be made: that informal social controls are more influential in regulating
conduct than formal measures; that social, economic and cultural sources of crime are more
potent than either genetic or criminal justice variables; and that, following Beccaria, certainty
ofpunishment is more effective than severity. These assumptions, combined with five basic data
on the prevalence of crime, are the context for recommending eight sets of priorities for
governmental action.


Crime  is a vast, complex and ill-charted array of activities, clumped together
on the sole common   denominator   that they are infractions of the criminal
law. There is no one theory, and no neat solution, that begins to encompass
them  all. Crime patterns and trends display both continuities and changes,
but it is often far from easy to say what is new and what is not. Despite these
caveats, three broad assumptions have substance as a basis for policy:
   (i) Informal social controls are far more  effective than formal social
control. The  informal  regulation of conduct  in  families, communities,
friendship networks and  voluntary associations is the pre-condition for law
and  order. Formal social control - the work of the police, courts and pris-
ons  - buttresses  the informal,  structures discretion, and  - ideally -
achieves justice by due  process. A key  function of  the criminal justice
system  is to prevent  the  excesses of informal  control, which   can in
extremis mean   lynch law. There are, however,  areas of regulation where
formal controls have worked  effectively to bolster weak informal controls.
For example,  compulsory  seat belts, MoT testing and stiff penalties against
drinking and  driving have reduced  road deaths significantly despite huge
increases in traffic.
   (ii) Social, economic and cultural sources of crime are of much  more
causal significance than the operation of the criminal justice system. Large
comparative  variations in the rate and character of crime between societies,
and  within societies over time, cannot be addressed  at all adequately by
genetic variables or the resources  devoted to formal  social control. For
example,  rates of violent crime, including homicide, remain several times
higher in the USA   than in the UK,  despite the reintroduction of capital

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© Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1997, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK
and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA

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