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Reducing Crime With Limited Legalization

Expanding on the Situational Crime Prevention theory that making crimes harder or less appealing to commit will make them less likely to occur, two criminologists make the case for "providing opportunities" for would-be criminals to commit their acts legally and safely.
The Wire's Hamsterdam. (Photo: HBO)

The Wire's Hamsterdam. (Photo: HBO)

In the third season of the HBO series The Wire, a rogue member of the Baltimore Police Department introduces a bold social experiment to his drug-and-crime-ridden part of the city. Major “Bunny” Colvin tells the cops in his charge that they’re going to establish “free zones” in abandoned neighborhoods that will do for the small-time drug trade what the brown paper bag did for public drinking: allow them to focus their energies on tackling larger issues. In zones like the notorious one that soon becomes known as “Hamsterdam,” fighting isn’t allowed, but drugs are given a pass.

Colvin’s idea is to limit the violence caused by gangs tussling for street corners, and to keep the drugs far away from schools and law-abiding homes. When he’s accused by his wide-eyed cop colleagues of single-handedly legalizing drugs, Colvin corrects them, saying that they’re not legalizing anything, they’re “just looking the other way.” As the plot progresses, collateral damage unfolds. But initially at least, Colvin’s plan does considerably reduce the violent crime rates in that part of the city, which was his main goal at the time.

It’s only a TV show, but Hamsterdam’s partial success in reducing crime rates in this fictional version of Baltimore nicely illustrates a new way of thinking about crime fighting. Criminologists Joshua Freilich and Graeme Newman, writing in a chapter of the new bookOrganized Crime, Corruption and Crime Prevention, argue that law enforcement and policymakers can reduce crime by “providing opportunities”—that is, providing an opportunity to a would-be criminal to commit the act legally and safely, or perhaps to commit a lesser crime.

SCP ignores the background factors of an individual criminal’s life, taking for granted that there will always be people who will be driven to commit crimes, for whatever reason.

Their argument expands on the traditional Situational Crime Prevention theory (SCP), which is a practical approach to crime, first introduced in the mid-1970s. “Situational Crime Prevention is about manipulating the environment and the situation to prevent crime,” Freilich says.

SCP ignores the background factors of an individual criminal’s life, taking for granted that there will always be people who will be driven to commit crimes, for whatever reason; it looks instead at how to create situations in which crimes are harder or less appealing to commit. In a practical sense, this means that, for instance, property owners should protect themselves with strong locks and bright lights, and maybe surveillance cameras; law enforcement should be clear and consistent and “remove excuses” criminals might make about not understanding the rules.

So, while sociologists might look at why someone commits crimes, criminologists who subscribe to SCP theory look instead at the practical elements of how, when, and where that person commits them. With their new paper, Freilich and Newman add their additional category to this list (“providing opportunities”), which could be described as what else they can do instead. One sub-category includes introducing “less harmful” or “more controlled” alternatives to crime.

“For example, a strategy to reduce the occurrence of street or ‘drag’ car racing would be to provide ‘official’ racing opportunities for youths,” the authors write in their paper. “Similarly, an intervention to reduce illegal graffiti would be to designate selected panels and walls that could be used for graffiti.”

Some urban policymakers are already on board with the graffiti-wall concept, actually. Freilich says he hasn’t heard of anyone too excited about officially sanctioned drag-racing yet, but a quick Google News search reveals that people are certainly still being arrested for it.

Hamsterdam doesn’t get name-checked by Freilich and Newman, but they do discuss the idea of controlled, regulated legalization of certain crimes, like prostitution—which can both “reduce illegal behavior and the costs associated with controlling it.” They also cite the growing acceptance of legalizing, regulating, and taxing the sale of marijuana in support of their argument.

But what is the overall impact of this type of crime prevention on a community as a whole? Freilich says that one of the most common criticisms of Situation Crime Prevention theory is that it simply moves crime to other areas, without reducing crime overall. This point makes a kind of intuitive sense: if a supermarket owner fortifies his store with bright lights, locked-up merchandise, and surveillance cameras, won’t a would-be thief just go across town to another supermarket that doesn’t have anti-crime measures installed?

In fact, though, empirical evidence often shows the opposite—that these types of practical crime-prevention techniques can both displace and reduce crime. A 2006 study conducted in Jersey City, New Jersey, (fittingly titled “Does Crime Just Move Around the Corner?: A Controlled Study...”) found that when cops focused their efforts on “hot spot” corners rife with drug-dealing and prostitution, those crimes at least did not simply show up somewhere else. Some of the crime was displaced to other places or times, but some of it was also eliminated.

In 2009, two more researchers examined over a hundred similar studies to the Jersey City one and concluded that “crime displacement seems to be the exception rather than the rule,” adding that “when displacement does occur, on average, it tends to be less than the gains achieved by the situational intervention, which means that the initiatives remained worthwhile.”

Freilich also mentions an earlier study that contradicts the displacement critique on a much larger scale, too. There was a time in the U.K., in the early 1960s, when gas ovens were an extremely common method of committing suicide. At some point, though, the poisonous carbon monoxide was removed from the public gas supply, with the result being that suicide-by-oven was totally eliminated. What was most surprising though, was that without such an easy and painless option, few people sought other (likely more difficult or painful) methods of suicide. The overall suicide rate in the country dropped dramatically and immediately.

While the heads of the utilities who decided to remove the carbon monoxide from the gas supply certainly didn’t necessarily cite Situational Crime Prevention as their inspiration, Freilich says that it perfectly fits with the theory. The removal of carbon monoxide didn’t address the root causes of suicidal plans; rather, it just had the effect of making it more difficult for people to follow through with them. And, surprisingly, that made a real difference.

“People had always thought that suicide was the most personal [choice], you know, if someone wants to do it, they’re going to do it,” Freilich says. But, while suicide rates eventually rose again after the initial fall, “it never surpassed what it was before, and it always remained a real reduction. That shows that you can have situational interventions on a real higher level.”

Another criticism is that SCP techniques don’t address the root causes of crime. But this is by design, Freilich says. SCP helps law enforcement to fight and prevent crime; it doesn’t help lawmakers craft grand policy. And it shouldn’t (and can’t) necessarily be law enforcement’s role to try to reverse the larger societal policies and problems that lead to lives of crime.

Poor Major Colvin in The Wire had a lot working against him. In his role, he couldn’t hope to reverse the generation-spanning, long-entrenched factors contributing to poverty and drug use in Baltimore. He could only try to do what he could try to do—and in fact, he only took that risk because he was so close to retiring with a major’s pension that he thought was guaranteed.

“It’s much more difficult to deal with these background factors—from a crime prevention point of view, it’s more efficient and effective to deal with the situational factors,” Freilich says. “That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t deal with the background factors for other reasons. Income inequality, you probably want to reduce, but just because it’s the right thing to do.”