Has New Zealand Identified the Causes of Crime?

By Ronald F. Pol
2016, Vol. 8 No. 02 | pg. 4/4 |

Policy Implications and Suggestions

Consistent with Pawson's 'realist synthesis' strand of evidence-based policy which "adopts a 'generative' understanding of causation" (2002, p. 342) and builds successful programs iteratively - drawing lessons equally from elements that worked and those that didn't - the following proposals offer practical suggestions for New Zealand’s 5 Drivers of Crime, and may have some general application for prevention initiatives elsewhere.

  1. Identify the underlying causes of crime. To meet the objective of supplementing "tough on crime" rhetoric with "smart on crime" strategies (MOJ, 2009a, p. 2), The 5 Drivers of Crime may usefully serve as a starting point from which to further advance constructive thinking and policy development regarding the complex mix of underlying causes of crime and risk factors associated with offending. Realising the ambitious policy intention of the Addressing the Drivers of Crime program by rigorously seeking to identify the underlying causes of crime, or at least some of the most significant causal drivers in important areas, and directing resources accordingly, would clearly help advance crime prevention objectives.
  2. Decouple the five factors as 'causative'. The complexity may be so overwhelming that we may never comprehensively isolate a unified theory adequately explaining the underlying causes of crime in any event (Hagan, 2011; Newburn, 2007). Nor does it necessarily matter if it proves impossible to identify the underlying causes of offending. The crime prevention literature emanating from Sherman's evidence-based policing synthesis holds that even without a complete causal understanding, crime prevention programs may nonetheless reduce crime and harm (1998; 2002). Until the appearance of Hagan’s criminological Galileo or Einstein (2011, p. 200), we may have only a disparate set of theories combined with the pragmatism of crime science which suggests that the positivist objective search for underlying causes of crime may be unnecessary (Clarke, 2004; Laycock, 2005) if crime prevention goals can be achieved by focusing not on the 'why' but the 'how' of crime (Paoli & Greenfield, 2015, p. 88). Whether or not the ‘real’ causes of crime can be identified, the constituent elements of The 5 Drivers of Crime retain legitimacy as risk factors correlated with crime and priority areas for policy development, but do not reflect the underlying causes of offending and victimisation, claims from which it is suggested they should therefore be decoupled.
  3. Update ‘drivers’. The 5 Drivers of Crime began as a means of identifying “initial priority areas,” and there is evidence of intensive implementation and positive results, so policymakers and police may consider it timely for modification or updating. If so, whether or not described as ‘drivers’, any new construct would benefit from a clear, accurate and consistent definition from the outset. Defining terms with the clarity of evidence-based rigour would help convey meaningful understanding, simply and effectively.
  4. Continuously integrate constructive criticism. It is axiomatic that policy programs should be exposed to rigorous monitoring, evaluation and reprioritisation for better outcomes. In the present context, the Ministers of Justice, Health and Courts jointly recommended allocating up to 5% per annum of the budget to “measuring the effectiveness of each of the initiatives [and] to inform any future reprioritisation decisions" (Cabinet, 2012b, p. 5). Earlier stages of the policy development process benefit likewise. Both may be equally heady times, when policymakers reach the end of the policy development stage, and when managers begin shaping policies for implementation. If the core premise of this article is correct, much like the apocryphal slave at triumphal processions whispering reminders of humility to Roman generals (Beard, 2007, pp. 82-92), application of a healthy dose of constructive criticism at each stage might have earlier revealed the issues raised in this paper. It is suggested that practices and amenable to constructive criticism within the policy development and implementation stages may help identify opportunities to improve outcomes long before formal program evaluation. Much has been written about police culture. Most of it remains anchored in the past, but encouraging and maintaining a culture genuinely open to constructive criticism is consistent with the evidence-based future of policing.

Conclusion

Purportedly representing the underlying causes of offending and victimisation, The 5 Drivers of Crime expressly or implicitly mischaracterises correlation for causation. Its constituent elements retain legitimacy as risk factors correlated with crime, and as initial priority areas for policy development and focus areas for intervention, but they are not causes of crime. This distinction matters, because focusing on elements that have little or no causative effect on crime, and excluding others that may arguably be causative, risks less effective outcomes. If any updated version of the ‘drivers of crime’ is defined clearly, accurately and consistently as a subset selected for priority attention from a range of factors correlated with crime, debate on the issue would deflate to less than Durant’s suggested paragraph. In the meantime, the answer to the question posed in the title is simple. No.


Epilogue

The author shared key findings from an early draft of this research with NZ Police. Senior representatives accepted that The 5 Drivers of Crime is not causative of offending, and confirmed its inclusion in a review of the Prevention First operating strategy. A Police media release soon afterwards (“Warrants executed in Taranaki meth operation”, 9 December 2015) referred to “the five priorities in the Prevention First strategy” a formulation that does not expressly or impliedly suggest criminal causation.


Acknowledgements

The author gratefully acknowledges support and assistance from Adjunct Professor Michael McFadden, (Former) Detective Superintendent Peter Devoy and Ashley Balls (critique on early drafts), Professor Graham Farrell (background on England’s six key drivers of crime), Dr Gwyn Fox (linguistic stress testing), and another scholar and several practitioners, all with a passion for policy effectiveness, policing excellence, and better outcomes, unnamed for their own reasons. Although they may not agree with all the points made here, their comments on earlier versions of the ideas expressed in this article were valuable and are appreciated.


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Endnotes

1.) Cabinet is the central policy and decision-making body of the executive branch of New Zealand's government, comprising the Prime Minister and other senior ministers.

2.) The author has not seen evidence that any of the enumerated signposts, other than the first, were actually uncovered in the Addressing the Drivers of Crime policy process from which The 5 Drivers of Crime resulted. Although readily accessible from a cursory glance at the scientific evidence base and the government’s own records, it is plausible that in 2009/2010 policymakers and Police were not aware of the latter three, in which case they are listed here with the usual benefits of hindsight.

3.) Although it may not have been available to them, participants’ comments echoed the earlier national crime prevention initiative noted above. Addressing white-collar crime - costing “billions of dollars” each year (Crime Prevention Action Group, 1992, pp. 28, 74) and carrying societal impact “considerably greater than the cost of robbery, theft and burglary combined” (Crime Prevention Unit, 1993, p. 11) - had been listed as one of seven crime prevention policy goals (Crime Prevention Action Group, 1992, 1993).

4.) The data are scant, and assumptions heroic, and without access to the underlying data these estimates are intended merely illustrative.

5.) This is consistent with earlier research indicating that “the value and impact of white-collar crime,” costing “billions of dollars” each year, “is considerably greater than the cost of robbery, theft and burglary combined” (Crime Prevention Action Group, 1992, pp. 27, 28, 74; Crime Prevention Unit, 1993, p. 11).

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