Has New Zealand Identified the Causes of Crime?

By Ronald F. Pol
2016, Vol. 8 No. 02 | pg. 1/4 |


This article explores the genesis and of The 5 Drivers of Crime (described as "the underlying causes of offending and victimisation") and examines its impact in the context of policy effectiveness and outcomes. The ‘drivers of crime’ was introduced into New Zealand policing to help meet rate reduction targets and transform the business of policing from traditional responsive policing to a preventive model. Recent crime prevention policies elsewhere have identified similar factors, such as England’s “six key drivers of crime,” and South Africa’s “six priorities” which seek to address “the root causes” and “drivers” of crime. These initiatives go to the heart of a fundamental question in criminology: "what causes crime?” The has also invited state actors to advance knowledge-based strategies to prevent crime and reduce victimisation.

Discourse on New Zealand’s Addressing the Drivers of Crime program may, therefore, be of wider interest to policymakers and practitioners. The article contends that The 5 Drivers of Crime mischaracterises correlation for causation, and seemingly overlooks an important ‘driver’ often associated with serious offending. Its constituent elements nonetheless retain legitimacy as risk factors correlated with crime and initial priority areas for policy development. This article argues that the distinction between causation and correlation matters, because focusing on elements that have little or no causal effect on crime and excluding others arguably risks sub-optimal outcomes. The article concludes with policy implications and suggestions, and a response to the question posed by its title. A companion article (Revisiting crime rates as a measure of crime prevention effectiveness) constructively critiques crime rates as a crime prevention effectiveness measure.


"If you wish to converse with me", said Voltaire, "define your terms." How many a debate would have been deflated into a paragraph if the disputants had dared to define their terms! This is the alpha and omega of logic, the heart and soul of it, that every important term in serious discourse shall be subjected to strictest scrutiny and definition. It is difficult, and ruthlessly tests the mind: but once done it is half of any task (Durant, 1949, p. 48).

What is a 'driver' in the context of 'drivers of crime'? Dictionary definitions are unclear whether it indicates causation or rests at correlation. The 5 Drivers of Crime introduced into operational policing in New Zealand claims the former:

The term 'drivers of crime' refers to the underlying causes of offending and victimisation (MOJ, 2009a, p. 2).

Understand and respond to the drivers of crime. Address the underlying causes of offending and victimisation: families, youth, alcohol, organised crime and drugs, and road safety (NZ Police, 2014a, p. 22; 2014c, p. 34; 2015, p. 16).

Seemingly consistent with Voltaire's refrain, the term 'drivers of crime' in New Zealand's criminal justice context is concisely defined, yet there is overlap and divergence in the use of terms like 'drivers', 'causes', 'issues' and 'risk factors'. Apparent definitional clarity becomes mirage-like: clearly defined, yet somehow uncertain. Voltaire’s maxim thus implies a necessary adjunct. Effective definitions also require consistency and the evidence-based rigour of accuracy. Defining a term with the clarity of well-defined assertion carries the benefit of simplicity, yet doing so consistently and accurately helps convey meaning both simple and profound.

This article explores the genesis and development of The 5 Drivers of Crime introduced into New Zealand policing. It contends that an expressive term inaccurately defined, or of inconsistent and vague definition, expressly or implicitly mischaracterises correlation for causation. The article ends with a response to the question posed by its title.

Targeting the Causes of Crime

“The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid "dens of crime" that Dickens loved to paint... It is conceived and ordered ... by quiet men with white collars" (Lewis, 1942, p. x).

Crime takes many forms. As C. S. Lewis noted it may be the brutal variety depicted by Dickens, or orchestrated for profit by white-collar criminals. Understanding the underlying causal drivers of each would help realise a long-held promise for successful crime prevention (Cantor, 1933, pp. 1032-1033).

In the modern context, the United Nations has invited states to progress and share knowledge-based strategies to prevent crime and reduce victimisation (UN ECOSOC, 2002), and ‘drivers of crime’ go to the heart of a fundamental question in criminology: "what causes crime?” (Hagan, 2007, p. 6). Before the UN guidelines were formulated (1995), Graham and Bennett identified 55 mostly local crime prevention initiatives in 12 countries. By 2013 more than 50 countries had reportedly established national crime prevention strategies, with some already in the process of renewal or modification (ICPC, 2014, pp. 25-26). A recent example is England’s “six key ‘drivers’ of crime”(Home Office, 2015). South Africa’s National Development Plan 2030 is another. It sets “five priorities,” and seeks to identify and resolve “the root causes” and “drivers” of crime (Civilian Secretariat for Police, 2015, pp. 13, 21, 23, 25). In New Zealand, core factors described in similar terms, as "the underlying causes of offending and victimisation", have been operational much longer. Since 2009 it has been expressed in a series of high-level organisational strategies and implemented operationally, so New Zealand’s experience may be of wider interest as other jurisdictions develop and refine strategies to reduce crime and victimisation.

New Zealand's Addressing the Drivers of Crime Program

In 2009, New Zealand's government embarked on an ambitious policy program to “improve public safety, improve value-for-money; and improve outcomes for New Zealand society" (Cabinet, 2009). Addressing the Drivers of Crime was the bold title ascribed to a multi-agency program to supplement "tough on crime" rhetoric with "smart on crime" strategies (MOJ, 2009a, p. 2). Cabinet1 papers described "a new approach to reducing offending and victimisation by … address[ing] the underlying drivers of crime", and to "improve public safety ... by working on the causes of crime" (Cabinet, 2009, p. 1; 2010, p. 1). The logic is clear. "Long-term and sustainable cost reductions in the criminal justice system can be achieved only if we stop people from offending in the first place" (Cabinet, 2009, p. 3). Rather than a reactive criminal justice response to crime, a proactive whole-of-government approach is intended to focus justice and social sector agencies on early intervention.

Rather than a reactive criminal justice response to crime, a proactive whole-of-government approach is intended to focus justice and social sector agencies on early intervention.

By 2014 NZ Police plausibly claimed success on many elements of its organisational change process transforming the business of policing from a traditional response-driven to a preventive model, as outlined in the self-published retrospective Policing Excellence (NZ Police, 2014b). ‘Initial priority areas’ to help guide crime prevention initiatives appear also to have transformed, seemingly regarded ‘drivers’ of crime in a causal sense, as charted in the next two sections.

'Priority Areas' and 'Drivers of Crime:' The Dance Between Correlation and Causation

Cabinet was advised in 2009 that "the underlying drivers of crime are complex" (Cabinet, 2009, p. 1), and four “initial priority areas” were identified for early attention by policymakers and government agencies:

  • Families. Antenatal, maternity and early parenting support.
  • Youth. Treatment of behavioural problems in children and young people.
  • Alcohol & drugs. Reducing the harm caused by alcohol [and improving the availability and accessibility of alcohol and drug treatment services].
  • Alternative approaches to managing low-level offenders, and offering pathways out of offending (Cabinet, 2009, pp. 2, 7, 12).

The Cabinet paper drew extensively from an earlier Drivers of Crime Ministerial Meeting, in essence, a one-day conference of officials, experts and interested parties; with formal papers, submissions and an 82-page report. It referred to policy initiatives targeting "risk factors" that are “related” or "contribute” to or have an “impact” on offending (Cabinet, 2009, pp. 1, 2, 4), seemingly representing factors associated with crime, not necessarily the underlying causes of offending. That interpretation is consistent with literature addressing the “fundamental question” of criminology, “what causes crime?” (Hagan, 2007, p. 6), which explores factors associated with criminal activity but typically ventures to isolate "causes, or drivers" only about particular circumstances or types of crime (eg Søreide, 2014, p. 6, emphasis in original). For claims to a more expansive definition encompassing the causes of crime, Professor Hagan added a cautionary note:

High hopes are raised for the discovery of a 'key' to explaining all crime and criminality, though no such breakthroughs have occurred in the parent social sciences - sociology, psychology, political science and economics - themselves. Those who are uncomfortable with such a theoretical morass might best be advised to study chemistry or biology or auto mechanics - fields in which the theoretical and empirical turf is tidier; the subject matter of the social sciences is infinitely more complex and not likely to yield to a general and universally accepted theory in the near future (2011, p. 92).

A study inspired by Becker's economic model of crime to test explanations for falling crime rates noted that economists, like their criminological colleagues, also “know little about the empirically relevant determinants of crime" (Dills, Miron, & Summers, 2008, p. 3). References in the Cabinet paper to 'risk factors' associated with crime likewise accord with earlier policy briefs. Consistent with the literature noted above, a range of issues, including social factors involving families, communities, , , alcohol and drugs were regarded relevant but not necessarily "causally related to offending, [they may be] simply correlated with such behaviour" (MOJ, 2009c).

The 'initial priority areas' themselves also mirror crime prevention policy s elsewhere. United Nations guidelines emphasise “communities, families, children and youth at risk" (UN ECOSOC, 2002, no. 8). Similar areas "requiring a concerted and coordinated response" appear under the aegis of an Australasian grouping of senior police officers (National Crime Prevention Framework, Australian Institute of Criminology, 2012, p. 11). In neither case, however, are such factors claimed criminally causative.

Although the 2009 Cabinet paper often separated 'priority areas' from causal factors associated with the title of the overarching Addressing the Drivers of Crime program, the seeds of confusion which later took root can be traced to this paper too, which also recorded a “shared enthusiasm” to "address the root causes of offending and victimisation" (Cabinet, 2009, p. 3, emphasis added). Repeatedly using the term ‘drivers of crime’ without clear definition also allowed it potentially to attract a causal interpretation. Similarly, the earlier Drivers of Crime Ministerial Meeting frequently distinguished between "the underlying drivers of crime" and "factors (or a combination of factors) [which] impact on crime", but also addressed many such issues loosely using either descriptor or both (eg, MOJ, 2009b, pp. 18, 26, 56). Opening remarks by the Minister of Justice had set a similarly disjointed scene, variously describing ‘drivers of crime’ as identifying “the causes of crime” or merely part of “the social and individual currents” placing people at a point they are about to offend (, 2009, emphasis added).

As noted above, the issues identified in the 2009 Cabinet paper and Drivers of Crime Ministerial Meeting are themselves unremarkable. They are typical of risk factors found in studies of crime causation by lay people (Banks, Maloney, & Willcock, 1975; Reuterman, 1978) and criminal justice groups (Cullen, Clark, Cullen, & Mathers, 1985; Reuterman & Cartwright, 1976). There is “widespread agreement” with “considerable overlap" about the various factors associated with offending (Campbell & Muncer, 1990, p. 411), and similar factors appear in various international crime prevention guidelines (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2012; UN ECOSOC, 2002). The issue here is not, therefore, with any of those factors, nor the policy decision to focus initial efforts on any subset of them. This article instead traces an apparent misperception between correlation and causation regarding well-recognised factors associated with crime.

Any remaining delineation between a list of contributory factors relevant to crime and the underlying causes of crime appears ultimately to have largely evaporated as the assumption of causation expressly or implicitly replaced correlation (as outlined in the next section), notwithstanding signposts that might have indicated another path. For example:

  • A series of basic policy briefs advised that "risk factors ... may be causally related to offending, or simply correlated with such behaviour" (MOJ, 2009c, p. 1).
  • Guidance in criminology texts that "simply listing correlations of factors associated with crime does not represent a theory [of causality]", and that "correlation does not equal causation" (Hagan, 2011, p. 194).
  • Widely-accessible common sense analogies:

To expect criminologists to address the query 'What causes crime?' is comparable to asking medical pathologists to answer the query 'What causes sickness?' Asking 'What type of sickness?' or 'What type of crime?' is the next logical step in approaching these questions. While the only thing most sicknesses have in common is that they have produced an unhealthy biological state, the only thing most crimes have in common is that they are, in a given place, at a given time, a violation of criminal law. Thus, cancer, polio and the common cold probably have about as much in common as shoplifting, embezzlement and murder (Hagan, 2011, p. 195).

  • New Zealand government reports prepared for an earlier national crime prevention initiative involving 22 government agencies extensively canvassed the scientific literature and expressly rejected a causal explanation of crime (Crime Prevention Action Group, 1992, pp. 4, 29; 1993, p. xi; O'Neill, 1993). In 1993, a specialist Crime Prevention Unit in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (transferred to the Ministry of Justice in 2000) listed seven 'key areas’ for ‘priority concern’ strikingly similar to those later identified as 'initial priority areas' in 2009/2010 (Crime Prevention Unit, 1993). That research noted that such factors had been “consistently identified” elsewhere, “regardless of where the phenomenon of crime has been studied” (Crime Prevention Action Group, 1992, p. 29). There was, however, a fundamental difference. Similar areas were identified as important risk factors correlated with crime as to justify priority attention in 2009/2010 as in 1992/1993, but in the earlier exercise, following extensive research and in-depth engagement with the academic literature, it was accepted that none could properly be characterised as representing the underlying causes of offending.

The next section traces the continuing journey by which correlation appears to have morphed into expressions of causation, notwithstanding these signposts.2

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