Why Sending Criminals To Jail Isn't The Best Way To Keep Us Safe
Violence has been part of all human societies since time immortal and this is unlikely to dramatically change any time soon.
Nevertheless, Australia does a pretty good job at keeping the rates of homicide, sexual violence and assaults relatively low compared to the rest of the world.
Whilst stories of grisly murders and terrorist attacks sprawl across our media, violent crime is a relatively rare phenomena.
Continuing our success, there are things we can do to reduce the rates of violence even further.
It should come as no surprise that the most successful interventions to change antisocial and violent behaviour occur in young people. Getting at-risk individuals whilst they are still wrestling with their identity is an ideal time to change someone’s course in life.
Effective interventions for antisocial young people include social competency training, criminal justice diversion programs and programs designed to keep young people in school. These programs are most effective if they consider the multiple influences that could cause a young person to act out violently, rather than looking for ‘silver bullets’ designed to turn them around.
Key to reducing violent offending in young men is addressing issues of anger and impulse control. One of the most effective therapeutic interventions for at-risk young men is to teach them emotional regulation and the ability to ‘stop and think’ before acting violently.
Whilst overall crime rates have demonstrated a gradual decrease over time, one type of offending has remained steady in Australia: family violence.
One of the key explanations for the lack of effective responses to family violence in Australia is the impact of social norms which reinforce risk factors for offending. This doesn’t mean that family violence is acceptable in Australia, but that certain toxic norms which correlate with family violence are accepted amongst a significant part of the population.
These norms include a belief that men should be the primary decision makers within a relationship, that a woman’s main priority should be child rearing as well as a general support for strict gender roles for men and women.
Having traditional views regarding gender does not automatically mean someone will act out violently, but accepting these norms is correlated with family violence for already at-risk male populations.
Challenging gender norms is no easy task, and is most effective in young people. Worryingly, some have suggested that challenging accepted gender norms in even young adults can actually risk a ‘backfire effect’ making people more likely to offend.
Overall, it is too early to tell whether interventions designed to challenge gender norms will have the intended cultural effect of causing a decline in family violence in Australia.
Limiting Prison to the ‘Worst of the Worst’
Research suggests that violent crime is often committed by a small group of serial offenders -- one study found that just one percent of the population was responsible for 63 percent of all violent crime in Sweden. Contrary to current political thinking, locking up offenders is not an effective mechanism for behaviour change.
Gradually, research is beginning to show that prison is criminogenic: going to prison actually increases recidivism risk for offenders.
Offenders who are incarcerated are more likely to develop behavioural problems, putting them at a higher risk of reoffending.
We should be reserving prison for the ‘worst of the worst’ and instead explore expanding the variety of community-based orders for offenders.
Community-based orders can be very effective in reducing recidivism and are the best means to provide tailored rehabilitation programs.
Being Honest About Drugs and Alcohol
Intoxication is a key factor in violent crime. Although the relationship between substance use and violence is complicated, amongst high risk individuals, alcohol and drug use clearly play a role in offending.
Current solutions to address the relationship between substance use and violence are rather blunt.
Lockout laws effectively reduce rates of assault by ensuring at-risk patrons do not become too intoxicated and are less likely to encounter conflict. Moreover criminal laws on possession and use of illicit drugs attempt to reduce consumption of substances within the community, but with limited success.
Like with everything else in crime prevention, the most effective interventions need to happen early. This includes teaching young people about the effect of alcohol on behaviour as well as instilling a culture that supports individuals not drinking in order to avoid becoming violent.
Harm reduction interventions for people who use illicit drugs are also likely to prove effective. For example, the relationship between methamphetamine use and aggression is highly dose dependent. Educating users on how to better manage their dosage is likely to prove effective in reducing methamphetamine-related violence.
Ultimately, we will never live in a society free from the darker side of man’s nature. However, there are things that we can do to try to decrease our crime rates further.
Rather than falling for sensationalist panic about violent crime, we should be encouraging our political leaders to implement evidence-based solutions to reduce the rates of violent crime in the community.