Saturday, September 5, 2009

Revenge vs back to basics

I’m remembering an old friend this week, C. Ray Jeffery, a famous criminologist, former President of the American Society of Criminology and professor at Florida State University. C. Ray passed away last year and I was just wondering what he’d make of the current debate about crime.

It’s interesting to reflect on what folks think causes crime and how to stop it. Some want rehab for violent offenders. Others want to string them up. Victims, understandably, often want retribution. Years ago professor Jeffery - a founder of the CPTED movement - would tell me never to forget it is far more fair, effective, and efficient to prevent those crimes in the first place.

He didn’t tell me that because it was obvious. He told me that because it is so often ignored. It still is today. Part of the reason for this blindness, I think, is the cloud of confusion obstructing clear-headed thinking when it comes to the emotional topic of crime.

Take the idea that living in places of Poverty and Social Deprivation (PSD) creates conditions for crime: desperation from lack of meaningful vocation; scarce personal resources; disconnection from meaningful relationships or sense of community.

If you believe PSD, then our course is clear. We must target crime neighborhoods, tackle the deprivation and opportunities that trigger crime hotspots, and get to work preventing crime-causing conditions.

Not that crime won’t happen in wealthy areas. More that the exception should not prove the rule.

Even though we can do some useful things (like CPTED) to reduce crime in the short term, not tackling the PSD root causes seems unethical (even though they are much harder to do).

Yet alternate theories persist, for example gang activity increases violence or a large young population in the "crime prone years" increases drug use. These ideas are like a half-finished story screaming out for a conclusion. Accepting them uncritically means ignoring that PSD probably stimulates the former and enhances distribution of the latter.

Professor Jeffery said it best in his paper at the 1999 International CPTED Association conference:

Most of the principles of crime prevention are based on the punitive-revenge-deterrence approach found in the criminal law. Punishment does not work, even a rat can learn to avoid a shock and to gain food.

As planners for crime prevention we must reinforce desirable behavior rather than punishing undesirable behavior. We must create environments that are healthy for the development of the infant, that stimulate brain growth, that provide a healthy diet and not toxic poisoning or stress, and that provide opportunities for education, family support, and adequate medical care in places of high infant mortality and child abuse.

Those are the words of the person who originally coined the term “crime prevention through environmental design”.

Perhaps it’s now time to re-examine how CPTED and Design Out Crime are taught and conducted today.

Perhaps it's time to get back to basics?

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