By Michael Shank

Sir, In an apparent editorial about-face (“Crime and the credit crunch”, September 2), you claim that larger police forces and harsher prison sentences are responsible for lower levels of crime and that the link between economic growth and crime is weak. This is hardly consistent with previous editorials – which I heartily endorse – prescribing economic development as an effective soft-power means of reducing violence in places like Afghanistan.

In fact, in the US, economic growth is directly related to crime. Recognising that employment rates are a component of economic development, American studies show that a 1 per cent increase in unemployment is accompanied within the year by a 6 per cent increase in homicides.

In the UK, too, poverty and serious crime are not so strange bedfellows. In studies in England and Wales, the higher the percentage of families living in relative poverty, the higher the violent offences. Former World Bank economist and Oxford professor Paul Collier supports this thinking with his analysis on the economic causes of civil conflict. Simply put, conflict increases in countries experiencing economic decline. Professor Collier asserts that with every percentage point knocked off the per-capita income growth rate, the risk of conflict increases 1 percentage point.

Punishing criminals with harsh prison sentences is not an effective deterrent. Within many communities in the US, “doing time” in prison earns respect among peers. On the curriculum vitae of many urban youths, a jail sentence trumps all else.

Reducing crime, then, requires providing incentives for alternative livelihoods. The potential criminal already has the incentive to serve time; it is our job to give him a reason not to.

Michael Shank,
Communications Director,
Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution,
George Mason University,
Arlington, VA, US

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008