Crime Statistics

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B U R E A U

O F

C R I M E

S T A T I S T I C S

A N D

R E S E A R C H

CRIME AND JUSTICE
Bulletin
Contemporary Issues in Crime and Justice
NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research

Number 54
February 2001

What Causes Crime?
Don Weatherburn
It is difficult to find a succinct, broad and non-technical discussion of the causes of crime. This bulletin provides a brief overview, in simple terms, of what we know about those causes. After presenting some basic facts about crime, the bulletin is divided into three main sections. The first looks at the factors which makes some individuals more likely to become involved in crime than others. The second looks at the factors which make some places (neighbourhoods, cities) more crime-prone than others. The third looks at the factors which make crime rates rise and fall over time. The conclusion of the bulletin highlights both the multiplicity of factors which influence crime and the need for a wide range of strategies in preventing it.

INTRODUCTION
The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research is often asked for information on the causes of crime. This is a complex topic and it is difficult to obtain a succinct, broad and non-technical discussion of it from any published source. Indeed, some criminologists claim there are no causes of crime, at least as the term 'cause' is normally understood. Whatever the merits of this view there is little purpose to be served in exploring it at length when the task at hand is simply to provide basic information about crime to people who have only a passing acquaintance with criminological research and theory. The purpose of this bulletin is to give a brief overview in simple terms of what we know about the causes of crime. Inevitably the information presented here will tend to oversimplify the issues involved. Readers interested in a deeper understanding of crime are urged to read the material referred to throughout the discussion which follows. The organisation of the bulletin is as follows. First we briefly explain what we mean when we say some factor or other is a ‘cause’ of crime. Then we present some basic facts on crime important in

understanding what causes it. In the third section we discuss factors which make certain individuals more prone to involvement in crime than others. In the fourth we discuss factors which make certain areas or neighbourhoods more crime-prone than others. In the fifth and final section we discuss some factors which influence trends in crime over time.

from involvement in crime. These, too, are cumulative in their effect.) Much criminological research involves trying to determine whether a particular factor increases the risk of involvement in crime when other possible risk factors are controlled (i.e. held constant). Of course, the discovery of a statistical association between some factor and crime never provides any guarantee that the factor in question causes crime, even when attempts have been made to control for other relevant factors. Identifying the causes of crime is never easy or certain. Research can only hope to eliminate some factors from consideration and strengthen our confidence in the role played by other factors. Naturally, as research continues to be conducted, our picture of crime constantly changes. The factors identified in this bulletin as causes of crime have been identified on the basis of research evidence. Our confidence in their importance must be regarded as provisional, nonetheless. One common problem in popular discussions of crime is a tendency to confuse the search for causes with a search for blame. To say that child neglect increases the risk of delinquency or that alcohol abuse

PRELIMINARY ISSUES
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY CAUSE?
Most people assume that, if an event or condition ‘causes’ some effect, then the effect invariably follows the event or condition. This picture of causation is unhelpful when dealing with crime. The factors or conditions...
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