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close this bookThe United Nations and Crime Prevention - Seeking Security and Justice for All (UN, 1996, 170 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction: Seeking security and justice for all
View the documentChapter 1 - A short history of international cooperation against crime
View the documentChapter 2 - The costs of crime
View the documentChapter 3 - The United Nations crime prevention system
View the documentChapter 4 - United Nations Congresses on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders
View the documentChapter 5 - Technical cooperation and advisory services
View the documentChapter 6 - Affiliated and associated institutes
Open this folder and view contentsAppendices: United Nations standards, guidelines and international instruments

Chapter 2 - The costs of crime

United Nations statistics show a steady increase in criminal activity worldwide in the 1970s and 1980s and project continued growth through the 1990s. Although rates differ each year, crime increases on average by about 5 per cent a year, controlling for population growth.

The number of recorded crimes jumped from about 330 million in 1975 to nearly 400 million in 1980 and is estimated to have reached half a billion in 1990. Between 1970 and 1980 the number of reported frauds, thefts and homicides jumped dramatically, with the most striking increases taking place in the more developed nations. The worldwide incidence of assaults skyrocketed, from a little over 150 per 100,000 population in 1970 to nearly 400 per 100,000 population in 1990. So did the incidence of thefts, going from slightly over 1,000 per 100,000 to close to 3,500 per 100,000 in the same period. In one major industrialized nation, the number of violent crimes per 100,000 grew from 498 in 1978 to 610 in 1987.

The Third United Nations Survey of Crime Trends, released in 1990, shows that the numbers of intentional homicides per 100,000 population rose from 1 to 2.5 between 1975 and 1985 in the developing countries; in the developed countries, the incidence in the same period changed from less than 3 to more than 3.5. In the significant category of drug-related crimes, the rate per 100,000 worldwide rose from 60 in 1975 to over 160 in 1985. Results of the Third Survey are used to project an increase in the overall crime rate per 100,000 from 4,000 in 1985 to close to 8,000 in the year 2000 unless national and international efforts can stem or reverse the trend.

More recent data - from the Fourth United Nations Survey - show that within a group of comparable countries, the number of recorded crimes per capita increased by an average of 23 per cent from 1986 through 1990.

Another United Nations study - the International Crime (Victim) Survey, carried out in the 1990s - also indicates growth in crime in the post-war period. Based on interviews with individuals representing a cross-section of the population of 50 countries on all inhabited continents, the first round of the study showed that more than half the urban population worldwide had been victimized by a crime at least once during the period 1988-1994. It also profiled regions of relatively high crime rates - Africa, Latin America and "New World" countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States - as well as regions of relatively low crime rates in Asia, Europe and West Asian and Arab countries.

The monetary costs of the operation of crime prevention and criminal justice systems are substantial. A United Nations survey released in 1990 shows that the more highly developed countries expend an average of 2 or 3 per cent of their budgets on crime control. In the developing countries, expenditure commonly runs from 9 to 14 per cent of national budgets. According to the Third United Nations Survey, the developed countries maintain about 225 police officers for every 100,000 population and about 20 per 100,000 to staff prisons. In developing countries, the corresponding figures are higher: more than 500 police and over 50 prison staff per 100,000 population.

Indirect costs of crime include the consequences borne by members of society who are not usually perceived as victims. These costs are difficult to quantify in monetary terms, but very real. There is, for example, the emotional pain suffered by relatives and friends of crime victims. Witnesses have to spend hours, days or even months involved in police investigations and in court proceedings. Consumers have to pay higher prices as a result of crimes directed at businesses. Property owners pay higher insurance premiums for the risks of theft, arson and other crimes. Enterprises unable to afford increased premiums are driven out of business or left vulnerable to catastrophic financial loss, and businesses and citizens incur costs of security systems. Tax evasion brings on higher taxation of honest citizens and shortchanges the social goals of towns and nations.

Crime discourages investment - in low-income urban neighborhoods of industrialized countries as well as in developing countries and countries in transition plagued by crime syndicates. It diverts capital from productive opportunities and into speculative, short-term enterprises and luxury spending, with spin-off effects that include corruption of public officials, extortion of legitimate businesses and ruined lives.

The ability of crime to distort economic activity is most dramatically apparent in the workings of giant transnational syndicates. Taking advantage of the globalization and liberalization of trade and finances in the 1990s, these groups now constitute a major force in the world economy, able to affect the destinies of countries at critical stages in their economic development.

A United Nations Development Programme study found that large-scale drug trafficking brings an inordinate amount of foreign exchange into drug-exporting countries, fuelling inflation, overvaluing domestic currencies and bringing down the return on exports. Production of goods for export is further discouraged by money laundering, which, according to the preliminary report of the investigation, "fosters contraband activity, often lowering the costs of goods smuggled; propitiates the underbilling of imports and the overbilling of exports; stimulates the flight of capital and induces mistrust of foreign investors, thus affecting the equilibrium between savings and investment, as well as legal employment generation". The Economist magazine points out, in a 1995 article, that "where the main purpose of investment is to launder drug money, the effect is often to crowd out legal businesses". This is because the main objective of the money launderers is to transform illicit money into legitimate assets; it is therefore in their interest to keep a business in operation, even if it sells goods or services below cost. Legitimate businesses cannot compete with prices set in this fashion.

Economic losses are compounded by the undercutting of political institutions. This occurs in an extreme form when terrorist groups or private armies operating under the flag of a political movement establish linkages with crime syndicates. In several countries, this trend is blurring the distinction between legitimate police and armed forces, on the one hand, and territory-controlling criminal gangs, and in many more countries it undercuts the rule of law and frustrates the efforts of legitimate public administration.

One particularly onerous side-effect of international crime and the trade in drugs is increased juvenile delinquency. The young are particularly vulnerable to the temptations of drugs; along with other dangers and lures presented by organized crime, drug abuse is a major factor promoting marginalization from society. Although some nations have reported no significant increase in juvenile lawlessness, many countries have, and they are found on several continents and among the most developed and less developed nations alike. An especially disturbing trend is the apparently earlier onset of delinquency; ages 13 and 14 are increasingly those when habitual drug use and criminal offences begin. Factors in addition to drug abuse and contact with organized crime that are indicated as contributing to delinquency include the breakup of traditional family structures; tumultuous social change or civil strife; instability brought on by migration from the countryside to the city; and high rates of unemployment among teenagers.

Crimes of violence are not limited to street assaults and gang warfare. A great many occur within domestic households, and the victims are almost always women and children. Physical abuse of women behind closed doors is an age-old problem, but one largely ignored as a societal concern or criminal justice issue until relatively recently. The roots of the problem are clearly structural, relating to ingrained notions about the lesser status of women as well as to stress brought on by psychological, social and economic pressures. It is clear that, in addition to efforts to alleviate the causes, legal mechanisms offering protection and compensation to women who are physically abused are of immediate importance.

The destruction that crime visits on women and children weakens the viability of family structures, which are already under pressure from rapid cultural change and the general withdrawal of public social services in the 1990s. The breakdown of families is one of the highest costs we pay for crime. It also has a pernicious multiplier effect, as the destabilization of families tends to perpetuate and promote criminal behaviour.