Time to Educate the Criminals?
Introduction Figures published in Britain in July 2000 revealed an alarming rise in crime rates, renewing public concerns about the measures used to combat criminal activity. In the wake of the 2001 general election, the Blair government finds itself struggling to deal with a crime wave. In this article, Kirstine Hansen of the Centre for Economic Performance based at the London School of Economics and Political Science, reports on the role of education in tackling crime.
The figures make grim reading. In the year to March 2000, crime in the UK rose by 3.8 percent--5.3 million offences committed compared with 5.1 million offences in the 12 months to March 1999. What's more, authoritative sources suggest there may be widespread under-reporting of crime--that the actual figures could be as much as 20 percent higher. The rise brought to an end an unprecedented period of falling crime in the years after 1992.
Yet the new figures are consistent with the long-term trend in Britain (and, indeed, in most countries). Crime in England and Wales, for instance, has on average increased at about 5 percent a year since 1900; and grew even more rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s. This long-term trend has been remarkably impervious to changes in the criminal justice system, prompting social scientists to explore the underlying causes of crime and to look for fresh ways to tackle it. Attention has begun to focus in particular on the significance of crime committed by young people.
What do we know?
But the crime statistics only tell us what crimes were reported to the police: crucially, they do not tell us who committed the crimes. For that information we must look to the figures relating to those found guilty of or cautioned for indictable offences. (Since not all crimes are solved, these figures only relate to a proportion of all crimes reported.) In 1997, there were 509,000 offenders: the vast majority--82 percent--were male and about 25 percent were under 25. Figure 1 clearly shows that involvement in crime tends to rise and peak in the mid to late teens and early twenties. It is the rising level of youth crime, taking place at a time when the proportion of young people in the population is declining, which has become the focus of much public concern and, in turn, the efforts of policymakers.
Fig.1: The crime age profile of males aged 10-71, 1997.
Why the young turn to crime
But as young
people grow older, they begin to be influenced by a series of factors
which discourage them from breaking the law. They start to think of
much delinquent behaviour as childish. As they move from dependence
to independence, leaving school and the parental home and entering the
labour market, getting married and starting families of their own, young
people begin to develop ties to society and attachments to social institutions
such as the family, the labour market and the community. These factors,
coupled with the possibility of more severe legal sanctions, all encourage
a lower crime rate, at least in public, as young people move towards
A 1998 report by HM Chief Inspectorate of Prisons showed that there were 10,570 young people under the age of 22 in the custody of the prison services in England and Wales in 1997. This represented a 5 percent increase on the previous year. The report points out that 'most of the youngsters had been failed by the education system'. Around two thirds of these youths had no formal qualifications, many had regularly played truant from school and over 50 percent had been excluded (or left voluntarily) before the age of 16.
These findings reinforce an important link between education and offending which has been found in many empirical studies. Take the importance of staying on at school, until the proper leaving age. An American study in 1999 found that high-school graduation reduced criminal participation among young males in the US, even after differences in ability were controlled for. It also found that young male high-school graduates were 30 percent less likely to earn an income from crime than those who did not graduate. Moreover, high-school graduation reduced the probability of being arrested by around 60 percent and of incarceration by between 85-95 percent.
The links between education
Perhaps most importantly, though, education encourages children to develop skills and acquire knowledge and training which will affect their future success in life. Their ability to communicate and forge relationships, the choices they make at the end of compulsory education, the jobs they will do and the wages they will receive over their lifetime potentially depend on the skills they acquire whilst still at school. If children want to maximise their future success they will be less likely to offend as youngsters. And if they secure successful jobs with good wages as a result of their educational success, they will also be less likely to offend as adults.
The crime-age profile
If the age at which an individual leaves school has no link with their involvement in criminal activity then we would expect the crime-age profiles of the two groups to be essentially the same. Figure 2 shows clearly that this is not so. For those who stay on at school, criminal activity is almost non-existent by the age of 25; for those who left school at 16, there is no real decline in the crime rate from the age of 22 onwards.
Fig. 2: Crime-age profile by education. Basic model for property crime.
On the face of it, these findings have important policy implications: could obliging people to stay on at school affect the crime rate? Unfortunately, the issue isn't quite so clear-cut. We need to know why these crime-age profiles are so different in order to determine the correct policy response.
In order to
do this, we have examined other variables which might influence the
crime-age distribution for the two groups and controlled for them to
see what impact they have on the crime-age profiles. If any of these
variables were able to account for a significant proportion of the difference
in the crime-age distributions between the two groups, the two distributions
would become more similar. If any or all could completely explain the
difference in the profiles then the gap would be eliminated and the
two groups would have the same crime-age profiles.
Within these broad areas, crime rates are highest in inner city areas, those with a high proportion of social housing, and poorly maintained districts. These patterns have been accentuated by recent trends in crime prevention and control which have encouraged individual self-protection, home security devices, neighbourhood-watch schemes, insurance and private policing which lead to increased crime in poorer areas, where individuals cannot afford to protect themselves.
It is not difficult
to see that schools influence children's behaviour outside as well as
inside the school, particularly in relation to delinquency. The age
an individual leaves school, their attendance, whether they have been
excluded and the qualifications they gain are all differentially associated
Delinquents disproportionately come from lower-class and low-income families. Their parents, if in employment, tend to be in low-paid manual jobs. Delinquents are also more likely to have convicted parents or delinquent older siblings.
have examined the link between the labour market and crime. Although
there is as yet no consensus, many found that, at least to some extent,
crime is related to unemployment, inequality and low wages.
Fig. 3: Crime-age profiles with all variables: property crime.
Of course some
of these characteristics matter more than others.
Table 1 shows that the most important set of variables explaining
the gap on average are school variables which account for approximately
46 percent of the gap overall; family variables which explain 26 percent
of the gap; and individual variables at 27 percent. But we can also
see from Table 1 that there are variations across ages. For example,
individual variables explain very little of the gap at the younger end
of the age profile (4 percent of the gap at age 16), but much of the
gap between the ages of 20 and 22. This is perhaps linked to the movement
away from the parental home, towards setting up new families and having
children in the early twenties.
offers a quick fix to the problem of youth crime. But set against a
century-long trend of rising crime, the effort needed to come up with
policies which can have a long-term impact is well worth making.