WASHINGTON — A recent CBS Evening News with Dan Rather contained a surprising story about crime in Britain. Even the unflappable Dan sounded slightly confounded when he anchored the story with the words, "This summer, thousands of Americans will travel to Britain, expecting a civilized island free from crime and ugliness and, in many ways, it is that. But now, like the US, the UK has a crime problem and, believe it or not, except for murder, theirs is worse than ours."
Despite some protestations in the British press, the CBS picture is pretty accurate. This is one aspect of British culture that doesn't make it onto PBS.
I was brought up in the peaceful Britain Mr. Rather referred to, but by my late teens, in the early 1980s, things were beginning to change. No one I knew growing up in South Shields, a poorer area of the country, was ever involved in a crime. But when our house was burgled (with my entire family present) the night before I left for university, I realized something was changing.
After university, I lived in London for eight years. The atmosphere there was very different from years gone by, and every night the local news contained tales of often quite horrific crimes in my Clapham neighborhood. Then I was mugged. It was not a violent mugging; in fact, there was a hint of the bizarre about it (the prime assailant was wearing, of all things, what appeared to be a dog muzzle), but it did happen less than 100 yards from my front door.
Yet all my life, I'd heard tales about how much more crime-ridden America was than Britain, a contrast reinforced by cop shows like "Kojak" (so much more violent and action-centered than our own "Z-Cars," in which humdrum crime and the daily grind of the "copper" were more important). The high US murder rate was common knowledge, driving British views to this day about the level of crime in the US and the effects of guns in society.
So when I moved to the US in 1997, I expected to be even more afraid. But I feel safer. Why? Partly because of the visible police presence. Working in Washington, I see far more police cars patrolling than I ever saw in London, even during the height of the IRA terror campaign. It's partly because I know I'm safer in my bed (almost half of British burglaries, compared with 10 percent in the US, take place with the householder present - British burglars have no fear of being shot by the occupant). But it's also partly because I know that crime rates have been dropping like a stone since the mid-'90s, even while crime stories on the evening news have been increasing. In the UK they have been rising, to an extent that they are now higher than America's.
In all major crime categories except for murder and rape (where the figures are unreliable on both sides of the Atlantic), Britain now has higher crime rates. For robbery, assault, burglary, and auto theft, Britain is a worse place than the US. Even the gap in the murder rate has narrowed, falling from 10 times as many murders per head in the US as in Britain, to 6 times as many (due entirely to the fall in the US rate).
Why has this happened? There are many theories, mostly concentrated on American-specific factors such as the role of guns in self-defense. But a recent study, by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics and Britain's Cambridge University, came up with a very interesting suggestion. Referring to serious and violent crimes, the report said: "An offender's risk of being caught, convicted, and incarcerated has been rising in the United States but falling in England."
In other words, if you are a criminal you are more likely to get away with it in the UK than in the US, and the difference in likelihood is getting greater.
This is an important conclusion. In some ways, it shows that the American incarceration experiment has worked - although the study also shows that length of sentence is unimportant, and harsh mandatory sentences for nonviolent, minor drug crimes strike me as bizarre. It also shows that British anticrime efforts that have veered off the road of custodial punishment have had a counterproductive effect.
If Britain is to return to the idyllic image of the peaceful nation it once was, it has to look seriously at methods that have been proven to cut crime. If it does, then our favorite PBS "Brit-coms" might be more representative of what we'll find when we travel there.
*Iain Murray is senior research analyst at the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a nonprofit group that works with the media to improve public understanding of scientific and quantitative information.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society