The USA has 3 times as many criminal offences as the UK

Posted: July 26th, 2011  Author:   2 Comments »

I was staggered yesterday to learn that according to a 2008 study by retired Louisiana State University law professor John Baker, the USA has an estimated 4,500 crimes in federal statutes. But I was only really surprised because I had only just found out that the UK has precisiely  1,455 – 3 times less. We’ll be producing a separate page of all UK criminal offences for you shortly.


Comparing crime and punishment between nations is always very difficult.  Many of us have heard a lot about the difference respective sizes of the prison populations in the UK and USA – 85,000 v. 2.2 million (according to this wiki) which even adjusted for populations of 62 and 307 million is a huge difference. Are we Brits ready to have 5 times as many prisoners as we do now and so be like America?


But here’s the beef: do we want that many lawyers as well?


It says something about how the reach of the law has become so pervasive in America that they don’t know quite how many crimes are on the federal statutes whereas we at least still do. Unkind observers would be tempted to conclude that in the USA, the lawyers really have taken over !


According to the same article, a major reason for the growth of these criminal statutes are;


lawmakers responding to hot-button issues—environmental messes, financial machinations, child kidnappings, consumer protection—with calls for federal criminal penalties. Federal regulations can also carry the force of federal criminal law, adding to the legal complexity


For all that, I’m not trying to grandstand here and say Britain and its boys in blue lead the world etc.  Far from it. No one in Brtain for example, has a clue how many regulations are in force today and precisely how many originate from Brussels and nor is there any proper cost benefit analysis, just a sort of regulatory impact assessment.


In fact, I think there’s actually a great deal we could import and learn from America’s crimefighters.  Starting with Bill Bratton, which just might be on the cards . . .


Cutting crime and the prison population?

Posted: May 28th, 2011  Author:   No Comments »

I keep thinking about this seminar I went to at Civitas – an excellent think tank – a few weeks ago, as reported on here by Alasdair Palmer of the Sunday Telegraph. Hats off to Civitas for inviting someone along to speak who doesn’t really share their view and thinks beyond prison works or doesn’t work – full stop. In my humble view, prison never quite works because it is meant to punish criminals, deter others and protect everyone else from repeat offenders. At what crime level do you declare success?

At best, 2 out of 3  seems achievable under the current setup and that’s excluding rehabilitation.

So my interest was piqued by the imaginative solution proffered by Professor Lawrence Sherman. As Palmer described;

At a fascinating talk at the think tank Civitas last week, he argued that prison is essential to protect the rest of us from hardened and violent criminals. But most prisoners aren’t actually in that category: they’re guilty of lots of relatively minor offences. And keeping them locked up is not the only way of reducing their criminal behaviour, merely the most expensive.

Instead of being sent to jail, Prof Sherman suggests that criminals in this group should be monitored by the police. When the cops catch them, it will often be better to offer them a deal than to prosecute: the police should tell the low-level criminal that if they go on a drug rehabilitation course, say, or get a job, or go for training, and stay out of trouble, they will not initiate the process of prosecution. If the criminal agrees, but is subsequently caught violating the terms of the deal, then the hammer comes down. But if he keeps his side of the bargain, nothing will happen.

Prof Sherman says that there is evidence from the US that what reduces reoffending among low-level criminals is very often the threat of prosecution, rather than the actual trial itself. And the problem with going through the courts is that it takes a very long time. As Prof Sherman says, no sensible parents tell their errant teenaged child, after they have caught him smoking: “This is appalling! In 12 months’ time, I might decide to prevent you from going out for a week. Or I might not. But in the meantime, I won’t do anything.” But that’s essentially how the court system in Britain works. It would be much more effective, claims Prof Sherman, if the police had the power to threaten the low-level criminal the moment they caught him.

I was intrigued to learn as well that Professor Sherman believes it is computationally possible to calculate future behaviour from past offences. I’m in think tanks so I do the unthinkable and politically irresponsible.

This system ought to be worth a trial in a few areas.