One bad apple really can spoil the barrel, says new crime study

IEA study argues that identifying the influence of social networks on crime points the way to more effective weapons to combat it

The reason crime rates soar in some areas and remain low in others is closely linked to the people we mix with, says a leading British economist, Paul Ormerod. His analysis shows that, under certain conditions, there is some truth in the old saying that one rotten apple spoils the barrel.

In a bid to understand the huge variations in crime rates in different places with similar characteristics, such as similar levels of poverty, a fact which has puzzled experts for years, Paul Ormerod divided the population into four groups according to their criminal potential. These were: not susceptible to crime, susceptible, criminals and prisoners – those in prison at a given time. He then mapped the probable movements from one group to another. In doing so, he was able to pinpoint that the single most important starting point in the battle to reduce crime was young men with low skills from deprived areas. They came into the category of people who were susceptible to crime and who may already have been in trouble – “The Susceptibles”, as Ormerod dubs them - and who stood a high chance of joining “The Criminals”, the group who were identified as active in crime.

His findings, contained in a study *Crime: Economic Incentives and Social Networks published by free-market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, have huge implications for future crime prevention policy in England and Wales, where the crime rate per 100,000 inhabitants is almost two and a half times higher than the supposedly crime-ridden US. The study also shows that in the 1990s, a young man of low skills had a 55 per cent chance of committing a crime, compared with a 30 per cent chance of committing one in the 1950s.

According to Ormerod, people are influenced to be criminals not only by deprivation or lack of adequate deterrents, such as harsh penalties, but also by their social interaction. The greater the proportion of criminals in a given community, the more likely it is that other people will break the law. In the same way, the higher the proportion of law-abiding citizens, the greater the pressure on criminals or potential criminals to turn their backs on a life of crime. This explains why crime rates vary from estate to estate and why poor rural areas often have less crime than wealthier urban ones. The Susceptibles tend to live in communities where a few people involved in crime are known to many others. If this community tolerates criminal behaviour through fear, weak sanctions or indifference, then this creates the perfect environment for high levels of crime. Strategies such as putting key criminals in the community in prison for a long period can effectively reduce crime. Institutionalising a larger number of first time offenders in prison for a short period of time may, in fact, increase crime.

Lessons for combating crime

“Crime does not arise from the behaviour of Robinson Crusoes, operating in isolation,” says Paul Ormerod. “People live in society and the actions of other individuals serve as role models, for good or for ill. The obvious conclusion is that by far the most effective way to tackle crime is by targeting social interaction directly. Reinforcing respectable community values and providing non-criminal role models can have dramatic effects in reducing crime in high crime areas and preventing explosions of crime in relatively low crime areas. With regard to systems of punishment, putting first time offenders in institutions for a short time may do more harm than good. However, imprisoning key criminals for a long period is likely to be much more effective.”

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