The general election manifestos of five of the UK’s biggest parties contain sweeping claims about the causes of crime and policies to reduce it. Experts are warning today that such broad statements are nearly always wrong, and are calling on politicians to stop misleading voters.
The manifestos contain broad promises to cut crime by putting more bobbies on the beat (Labour), introducing tougher prison sentences (Conservatives) or tough community sentences (Liberal Democrats), reducing unemployment (Green Party) and deporting foreign criminals (UKIP). Making Sense of Crime, a guide published by Sense About Science, sets out why such generalisations are misleading: they wrongly assume crime is a single phenomenon to be addressed by headline-grabbing measures, and ignore evidence on what works and what doesn’t in reducing different types of crime.
In the guide, experts in violent crime, policing, crime science, psychology and the media’s reporting of crime share insights from this evidence, which contradict many of these general election promises. These insights include:
- Most types of crime are falling across developed countries and have been for around 25 years, so individual policies don’t have a big effect
- The most effective ways to cut crime might lie outside the criminal justice system
- Crime isn’t caused by a single factor such as unemployment, poverty, bad parenting, government cuts or influences such as video games
- ‘Criminals’ aren’t a separate group from the rest of society
- Police statistics are not the best way to judge crime rates
Sense About Science is encouraging people to use our new ‘crime exaggeration checklist,’ published alongside the guide, to spot misleading statements on crime by politicians, commentators and think tanks, such as:
- The fall in violent crime over the past decade is due to my policies
- [This thing] is the main cause of crime
- Criminals are different to the rest of us
- I know [this policy] will reduce crime
- Prison works
- Prison doesn’t work
The checklist will help members of the public who care about crime policy to question the evidence behind such broad claims, at the 2015 election and whenever new crime policy is announced. This puts public figures on notice that they won’t get away with misleading people on crime with policies that contradict the most reliable evidence.
Prateek Buch, policy director of the Evidence Matters campaign at Sense About Science, said, “Politicians of all stripes, commentators and think tanks make sweeping statements about the causes of crime and policies to tackle it. The best available evidence says they’re wrong, so instead of being misled or having wool pulled over our eyes, it’s time for people to ask for evidence behind crime policy and demand that public figures take account of reliable evidence.”
Chris Peters, director of the Ask for Evidence campaign at Sense About Science, said, “Crime is one of the top 10 issues people are concerned about in this election. So it’s time for more realistic claims about its causes and remedies. Elections are when we hold those in power to account and that includes making sure people are telling the truth about evidence. The manifestos don’t do that so now researchers and the public are asking for it.”
Nick Ross, Chair of the UCL Jill Dando Institute for Security and Crime Science, said, “Politicians, commentators and think tanks often cherry-pick studies that support their values, or use poor-quality, uncertain or irrelevant evidence to back up their claims. This has to stop. There are many crime-fighting measures proposed at this election, costing billions, but we can’t tell how wisely that will be spent without knowing how strong the evidence behind these measures is.”
Dr. Alex Sutherland, research leader in communities, justice and safety, RAND Europe, said, “We can signal disapproval at particular types of crime by increasing punishments, but it is often claimed that measures such as heavier mandatory sentences will reduce the number of these offences (or reoffences) through a deterrent effect. Yet it’s hard to find evidence to support blanket claims that ‘getting tough’ on crime is an effective deterrent.”
Professor Daryl O’Connor, Chair-Elect, Research Board, British Psychological Society, said, “It is essential that policy making in all areas should be based on reliable, robust evidence. Making Sense of Crime not only challenges policy makers to ensure that policies are made on the basis of the very best available evidence, but also to not be afraid to admit when mistakes are made or when the evidence is not as reliable as it could be. In addition, there is a responsibility on the media to ensure that its reporting is just not sensationalist and alarmist but is a factual and accurate representation of the issue, whether it be rising or falling crime, police effectiveness or the impact of custodial sentences. We welcome the publication of Making Sense of Crime and have been delighted to be involved in its development.”
See the guide here.