Crime Prevention

How can we 'catch' and prevent crimes before they are committed? 

Crime Prevention Crime Prevention

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Table of contents

    In this explanation, we will address and go through the various answers to this question.

    • We will clarify the meaning of crime prevention.
    • We will focus on the primary strategies of crime prevention in sociological theory: situational, social and community-based, and environmental crime prevention.
    • We will explore and evaluate these three measures.
    • We will also see examples of each.

    The meaning of crime prevention

    First, let's look at a definition of crime prevention:

    Crime prevention and control strategies refer to society's attempts to curb crimes before they can occur, rather than punishing them after they have been committed.

    Now that we are familiar with the meaning of crime prevention, let's go through the various methods through which society attempts to prevent criminal activity.

    Crime prevention strategies

    There are three main crime prevention strategies to be aware of:

    • Situational crime prevention

    • Social and community-based crime prevention

    • Environmental crime prevention

    Let's go through each in turn. We will define the strategies and their aims, look at practical examples of their implementation, and assess their advantages and disadvantages.

    Crime prevention theory

    The various crime prevention mechanisms outlined above and explored below are based on different theoretical understandings of crime. That is, strategies for preventing crime differ according to the beliefs one has about the nature of crime, those who commit it, and how it should be dealt with.

    For instance, some believe crime is a symptom of structural issues in society. Others argue it is the result of a breakdown of social norms or inheriting deviant values.

    Situational crime prevention

    The first and most commonly cited method is situational crime prevention.

    Situational crime prevention attempts to reduce opportunities to commit crimes and make it more difficult to break the law in everyday situations. It looks at the types of offences people commit, the places where they offend, and aims to prevent them at the point of their intersection. It is a pre-emptive strategy.

    The goal of situational crime prevention is to increase the amount of effort it takes to carry out criminal activity, and reduce the rewards one obtains from it.

    Situational crime prevention is based on right realism, specifically 'Rational Choice' theory. You can find out more about different approaches like this one in Sociological Theories of Crime.

    Examples of situational crime prevention

    An example of situational crime prevention is what is known as target hardening - implementing barriers such as door and window locks, CCTV, security personnel, and anti-climb paint. This serves to remove the opportunity to either break in or commit a robbery.

    Another aspect of situational crime prevention is designing out certain features of an area that may enable crime. This can look like installing sloping seats at bus stops or adding armrests in the middle of park benches to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them, or, in more extreme cases, the use of 'anti-homeless architecture' in certain parts of a city or area.

    Felson (2002) observed designing out measures being used in the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal. The bathroom areas were used for drug dealing, baggage thefts, rough sleeping, and sexual encounters. The bathroom sinks were made smaller to prevent homeless people from bathing in them.

    Designing out can also include spikes, barbed wire, and other features that make it difficult to climb or enter a property.

    Advantages and disadvantages of situational crime prevention

    Situational crime prevention is quite controversial. Let's look at its praises and criticisms.

    Advantages of situational crime prevention

    • Situational crime prevention is a cost-effective and relatively simple method of curbing crime and can therefore be appealing as a short-term solution to many common crimes.
    • There is evidence to suggest that this strategy works and offers a more convenient and practical method to reduce offending. This is in comparison to traditional crime control strategies, which generally focus on the offender rather than the situation (Clarke, 1997; Guerette and Bowers, 2009.)

    Disadvantages of situational crime prevention

    As with anything, there are disadvantages as well.

    Crime displacement

    • One of the most prominent objections to situational crime prevention is displacement - rather than reducing crime, it simply causes the crimes to move elsewhere. For instance, removing homeless people from the streets does not erase the issue of homelessness/rough sleeping, but perhaps only forces those people to 'squat' somewhere else.
    • Chaiken et al. (1974) found that doubling down on dealing with subway robberies in New York resulted in crimes being displaced to the street level above.
    • There are several forms of displacement: spatial (committing crime somewhere else), temporal (committing crime at a different time), target (committing crime on a different victim), tactical (committing crime in a different way), and functional (committing another type of crime).

    Root causes are ignored

    This leads to another significant issue with this method, because it does not address the root causes of crime. Criminal activity doesn't usually arise out of nowhere. It is the result of complex societal and cultural factors. Many common crimes such as petty theft or rough sleeping are often due to poverty, deprivation, and inequality.

    The narrow focus of the types of crime addressed

    Situational crime prevention generally only focuses on 'street' crime and the causes behind it. It does not engage with other forms of criminal activity such as interpersonal violence, white-collar crime, and state crimes.

    Crime Prevention, Man with a grey jacket and a ski mask breaking into a house with a metal tool, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Situational crime prevention attempts to eradicate "street crimes" such as break-ins.

    Social and community crime prevention

    This is a strategy of crime prevention that is founded on a very different ethos from its situational counterpart.

    Social and community crime prevention focuses on individual criminal offenders and the social context within which they offend. It aims to pinpoint and treat the causes of the crime rather than the symptoms.

    Strategies usually include grouping individuals who are more likely to commit crimes and intervening in some form. Proponents of this method assert that the risk conditions of crime such as poverty, unemployment, lack of housing, etc., need to be urgently addressed to truly eradicate crime.

    Some groups in society appear to be more susceptible to the risk conditions, such as low-income populations and some ethnic minority groups. To combat this, interventions that target issues faced by these groups address the social determinants of crime.

    This includes methods such as enrolling children in pre-school classes and adults in parenting classes. This attempts to correct low educational attainment and family conflict, both of which may lead to crime.

    Examples of social and community-based crime prevention

    Real-life examples of social and community crime prevention schemes include:

    • The Troubled Families Programme established in the UK

    • The Perry Pre-School Project in the US

    These target 'troubled families' and vulnerable children, in order to reduce criminality and other social problems. These initiatives have both proven successful.

    Advantages and disadvantages of social and community crime prevention

    Let's study the strengths and weaknesses of this crime control strategy.

    Advantages of social and community crime prevention

    • If utilised effectively, social and community prevention measures can significantly change the lives of people inclined towards criminal behaviour by giving them a chance at an honest life. They can also benefit the state and society at large by ‘turning’ potential criminals into employed taxpayers and productive members of society.
    • The results can be long-term as the measures aim to address the root causes of crime.

    Disadvantages of social and community crime prevention

    • As these types of schemes are the most comprehensive at addressing causes of crime, they are also usually the most expensive of all crime prevention methods. They may therefore be difficult to implement on a large enough scale.

    • Social and community-based approaches, similar to their situational counterparts, only target 'working-class' crime and urban communities, leaving 'elite' crime unresolved. These include green crimes and financial crimes such as fraud.
    • Marxists would also argue that while policies such as the Troubled Families Initiative do address experiences of deprivation, they do not eradicate the systemic economic inequalities at the heart of capitalist societies which cause these issues to begin with.
    • Finally, Michel Foucault and Foucauldian sociologists criticise intervention-focused mechanisms as having little do with tackling crime; in fact, they are just more opportunities for state surveillance and controlling the public.

    Environmental crime prevention

    The third and final crime control strategy we will cover is environmental crime prevention.

    Environmental crime prevention relies on the idea that physical signs of disorder or crime give off the impression that there is low social control/enforcement, which attracts and encourages criminal activity.

    Environmental crime prevention is based on right realism, specifically Wilson and Kelling's (1982) 'Broken Windows' theory. Find out more in Sociological Theories of Crime.

    The theory states that visible signs of decay in a neighbourhood or area (litter, broken windows, graffiti, abandoned housing) signal public neglect, leading to a fear of crime which prompts ‘respectable’ community members to leave.

    This makes it more difficult for the community to maintain order and control anti-social behaviour and so results in the eventual decline of the neighbourhood. Therefore, the environment itself needs to be discouraging towards crime.

    Examples of environmental crime prevention

    Zero tolerance policing (ZTP) is a form of environmental crime prevention where even minor misdemeanours are treated the same as serious crimes in order to discourage them.

    Similarly, Antisocial Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) mean that people can potentially be sent to jail for slight acts of deviance. The reasoning behind both is that it is better to prevent the slide into crime than deal with the aftermath.

    Advantages and disadvantages of environmental crime prevention

    Like all others, environmental crime prevention has drawbacks and benefits, as follows:

    Advantages of environmental crime prevention

    • It can be considered quite effective. Zero tolerance policing in New York, USA led to a lot more people being arrested for misdemeanours such as marijuana possession. In the UK, ZTP methods have been applied in Liverpool and have resulted in a fall in the overall crime rate, particularly violent crimes.
    • It is also a relatively cheap strategy and appears to have an immediate effect on crime, which can be reassuring to the public.

    Disadvantages of environmental crime prevention

    • Environmental crime prevention can be disproportionately harsh. ZTP has resulted in people facing severe consequences such as losing their jobs. ASBOs can also give people criminal records even if they did not commit any crimes.

    • Techniques such as zero-tolerance have been deemed unnecessary, as crime has decreased in countries that did not adopt such techniques.

    • Environmental crime prevention strategies can feed prejudice - assuming an area is more prone to crime because it looks 'rough' is not always accurate or warranted.

    • ZTP often disproportionately affects ethnic minorities due to biases.

    Crime Prevention, Close up image of a broken glass door window, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Environmental crime prevention is based on the idea that "rough" neighbourhoods invite crime.

    Crime Prevention - Key takeaways

    • Crime prevention strategies attempt to prevent crimes before they occur.
    • There are three main strategies: situational, social and community and environmental crime prevention.
    • Situational crime prevention reduces opportunities for criminal activity. They are cheaper and simpler to implement, but also displace crime, do not address root causes, and only concentrate on 'petty' crime.
    • Social and community-based strategies address the criminal and the circumstances of the crime. These methods tend to have the most powerful impact, but are also much more costly, only target one type of crime, and are criticised for still not eradicating socioeconomic inequalities. They are also accused of acting as a means for surveillance of the public.
    • Finally, environmental crime prevention, or 'Broken Windows', maintains that visible signs of disorder in an environment encourage criminal activity. While environmental mechanisms such as ZTP can be fruitful in raising arrest numbers, are cheap, and immediately effective, they have also been deemed excessively harsh in comparison to the offence, unnecessary, and prejudiced.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Crime Prevention

    What is situational crime prevention?

    Situational crime prevention is a strategy that aims to reduce opportunities for criminal activity. It looks at the types of offences people commit, as well the places where they offend; it aims to prevent them at the point of their intersection.

    What are some examples of crime prevention? 

    Examples of crime prevention techniques include target hardening, designing out features, social interventions, zero-tolerance policing, and anti-social behaviour orders.

    Why is crime prevention important? 

    Crime prevention is important because it attempts to prevent crimes before they occur. This can save victims of crime from potential harm. 

    What are the roles of police in crime prevention? 

    Police play an integral part in environmental crime prevention, such as zero-tolerance policing. 

    What are the three types of crime prevention? 

    The three types of crime prevention are situational, social and community-based, and environmental crime prevention.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which sociological theory of crime is 'situational crime prevention' based on?

    Zero tolerance policing has been deemed ineffective for crime prevention. True or false?

    Women are at greater risk than men of becoming victims of violent attacks.

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    Team Crime Prevention Teachers

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