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The power law of crime
The majority of offences are committed by a small number of people
In July 2021, three young friends from the Tallaght area of Dublin were driving along the city’s N7 road when their car went headlong into a lorry. Graham Taylor, Karl Freeman and Dean Maguire, aged between 26 and 31, were all killed in the horror smash, which was followed by a fire of such intensity that the men had to be identified using DNA from relatives.
What was so unusual about the tragedy was that after the accident the number of burglaries across Leinster plummeted, with huge declines in some counties; in Laois and Offaly non-aggravated burglaries fell by more than half between June and August.
Freeman had ‘previous convictions for offences including dangerous driving, endangerment, burglary, assault and unlawful taking of a car’, one judge calling him ‘a menace to society’. Maguire had 30 previous criminal convictions, while the Gardaí considered Taylor to be the ‘most significant criminal’ of the three. He had 120 previous convictions, including a number of driving offences for speeding and endangerment.
Before their untimely and tragic deaths, these three men had between them made a huge contribution to crime in that part of Ireland, and with considerable effect on trust and wellbeing for literally tens of thousands of residents.
This story comes via an Inquisitive Bird substack covering the subject of power laws in crime. Power laws, whereby a small number of people tend to be responsible for a huge proportion of any phenomenon, can be found in all human activity, whether it be income, book sales by authors, or number of sexual partners; the most well-known, the Pareto principle, or the 80/20 rule, originally comes from Italian land ownership.
Lawbreaking, too, observes a power law, so that a huge proportion of crime is committed by a very small number of offenders who have an outsized impact on society.
Inquisitive Bird wrote that power laws are ‘observed for arrests, convictions and even self-reported delinquent behavior’. He cited British data which shows that ‘70% of custodial sentences are imposed on those with at least seven previous convictions or cautions, and 50% are imposed on those with at least 15 previous convictions or cautions (Cuthbertson, 2017).
‘But perhaps the most illustrative study is by Falk et al. (2014), who used Swedish nationwide data of all 2.4 million individuals born in 1958–1980 and looked at the distribution of violent crime convictions. In short, they found that 1% of people were accountable for 63% of all violent crime convictions, and 0.12% of people accounted for 20% of violent crime convictions.’
Therefore in Sweden, some ‘70–80% of violent crimes are recidivism after an earlier conviction for a violent crime’, and ‘approximately half of violent crime convictions were committed by people who already had 3 or more violent crime convictions. In other words, if after being convicted of 3 violent crimes people were prevented from further offending, half of violent crime convictions would have been avoided.’
The author notes that, although ‘America has a reputation of a very harsh penal system that is very quick to lock anyone up’, this is not true. In fact one study found that ‘72.8% of federal offenders sentenced had been convicted of a prior offense. The average number of previous convictions was 6.1 among offenders with criminal history.’
Contrary to what received opinion in Britain believes, America is not a particularly punitive country; in fact criminals are often allowed to repeatedly offend until the inevitable tragedy happens.
The post cites analysis by the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform which finds that ‘Overall, most victims and suspects with prior criminal offenses had been arrested about 11 times for about 13 different offenses by the time of the homicide. This count only refers to adult arrests and juvenile arrests were not included.’
In Washington DC, about 60–70% of all gun violence is carried out by just 500 individuals, and the same Pareto principle applies to shoplifting, the bane of big liberal cities like San Francisco or Vancouver, where 40 offenders were arrested 6,000 times in a year.
According to the New York Times, ‘Nearly a third of all shoplifting arrests in New York City last year involved just 327 people, the police said. Collectively, they were arrested and rearrested more than 6,000 times.’ That third is therefore committed by less than 0.004% of New York’s population.
‘Violent offenders are escaping jail until they have been convicted of up to 25 common assaults, while some are accruing as many as seven or eight repeat convictions for carrying a knife before they are given a prison sentence. Other criminals are collecting more than 20 drug convictions before being jailed.’
The paper reported that one-tenth of offenders in England and Wales commit half of all crimes, and that ‘10,400 “super-prolific” offenders who had been convicted of more than 50 previous offences each were spared jail over the past three years’. Between 2019 and 2021, 100,000 offenders with more than 16 previous convictions avoided prison.
They also found that for theft, prolific offenders had to rack up 49 previous convictions or cautions before they were jailed, ‘For robbery – theft with force or the threat of violence – it was nine previous such offences’, and for common assault 25 such attacks.
In 2020, one burglar was only jailed after 20 convictions; one knife offender was caught seven times with weapons before going down, and another eight times. ‘Even for sexual assault, the worst offender had been convicted of five previous attacks before being jailed in 2020, and three in 2021.’ How can someone commit five sexual assaults and still not be jailed?
Yet people convicted of multiple crimes will almost certainly have committed many, many more. One study ‘followed 411 South London men from age 8–9 in the early 1960s through their lives’ and found they admitted to ‘committing many hundreds of times more crimes than they were ever caught for.’ On top of this, most burglars also routinely shoplift, and the fact that people who self-report greater numbers of crimes tend to get caught and convicted later in life ‘implies that self reports have some level of validity’.
Unsurprisingly, British criminals released after short sentences of less than 12 months are more likely than not to reoffend within a year, while only 5% of those who endure stretches of 10 years or more do so.
All of this has huge implications for crime policy and suggests that merely relying on higher clear-up rates, and the stronger possibility of detection, are not enough in themselves.
The social and economic downsides of crime are enormous; Ben Southwood has estimated the cost in the US to be in the trillions, a huge part of which is due to crime avoidance. As Southwood notes, higher crimes causes society as a whole to become antisocial: ‘People who fear new neighbours have a substantial risk of committing crimes tend to oppose new development nearby, and to live in extremely spread out “sprawl” suburbs, where sheer walking distance between places makes crime more difficult. What’s more, people in high-crime areas prefer to travel with metal shields around them at all times – that is by car – causing dramatically higher carbon emissions. By contrast ultra-low-crime Japan is tolerant of high density development throughout its cities, and rates of cycling, walking, and transit use are all extremely high, while carbon emissions are much lower.’
Of course this relative cost is far lower in western Europe, but even here quality of life crimes are a huge drain on happiness and wealth. I’ve written before about how the near-certainty of bike thieves avoiding prison hugely reduces the amount I cycle, rather than using public transport or driving. Bike theft in many cities is carried out by very small numbers of people, and substantial prison sentences for those convicted of possessing multiple stolen vehicles would have a huge effect on our everyday lives. (Otherwise law-abiding people would of course become far more cautious about buying stolen bikes, too).
Meanwhile a mobile phone is reported stolen in London every six minutes and phone theft, like that of laptops and bikes, is heavily concentrated among a very small number of thieves. Lock them up, and for substantial periods of time, and our quality of life would be transformed: we don’t need to make prisons unnecessarily grim or unpleasant; build some luxury jails deep in the countryside and give them huge grounds to roam. Alternatively, many might be better served in asylums, which have seen a considerable decline in numbers.
What matters is that persistent wrongdoers are kept away from society.
A friend based in Singapore has on occasion sent pictures of his bike, in a rack on a main road where he leaves it overnight, unlocked. The fact that he does so, and expects to see it in the morning, is almost mind-blowing to me.
I feel like the great Lee Kuan Yew describing his visit to London as a young man where he passed by Piccadilly Circus station. Here, ‘I found a little table with a pile of newspapers and a box of coins and notes with nobody in attendance. You take your newspaper, toss in your coin or put in your 10-shilling note and take your change. I took a deep breath – this was truly a civilised people.’
But such levels of civilisation are simply impossible when a small minority of criminals are allowed to mingle freely in society. Urban honesty boxes are impossible not because British society is inherently wicked but because a relatively tiny number of people would clear them out. Imprisoning several thousand more persistent wrongdoers, for long stretches, would bring Britain’s crime rates down to similar levels enjoyed in Singapore, where shops can stay open into the small hours without security, and women can walk home late at night listening to music on their earphones.
Until policymakers accept that prolific criminals have to be incapacitated, the rest of us are condemned to a quality of life well below what we should expect.