Does crime hit rich hardest?

2010-12-11 00:00

INDEPENDENT crime trends researcher and statistician Michael O’Donovan has sparked a furious debate after arguing that crime statistics show that the richer you are, the greater your risk of falling victim to crime.

His theory flies in the face of the general consensus that poor, black South Africans bear the brunt of crime.

O’Donovan’s analysis, presented at an Institute for Security Studies conference last week, examined the relationship between poverty, inequality and crime rates by taking the latest census statistics (from 2001) and plotting them on a graph against police statistics for various categories of crime for the same year in 1 043 precincts.

He admitted the findings are counter-intuitive, but said numbers can’t lie, and “the burden is on you to falsify my findings”.

What his graph showed is that lower average income clearly correlates to lower crime rates. Poor precincts, as a rule, have less crime than wealthier ones.

Professor Rachel Jewkes, director of the Medical Research Council’s Gender & Health Research Unit, who has been studying gender-based violence for 16 years, reacted strongly.

“You need to be extremely cautious about drawing conclusions from this sort of data,” she said, arguing that crime reporting depends on the accessibility of the police, which is limited in rural areas.

She argued that poor people have fewer valuable possessions, so they mostly don’t report crime to claim insurance, like the rich do.

Rural residents are also less likely to report crime if they know the perpetrator.

Jewkes said you could not draw conclusions about perpetrators from victim reports and that is what police statistics are.

Poverty is a factor that motivated the commission of crime, yet crime reports give no information on where criminals live.

Social Justice Coalition co-ordinator Gavin Silber agreed that police crime statistics are “simply too unreliable to make assumptions that can be very misleading, and have a dangerous effect on policy formulation”.

“Courts and police stations in poorer areas are incredibly under-resourced and overburdened,” he argued, “they are unable to address crimes that aren’t ‘serious’.”

Silber said informal settlement residents are regularly assaulted, raped, robbed, and murdered, just walking from their shacks to communal toilets. Crime has touched almost everyone in such settlements, he said.

Lack of lighting and roads render them more susceptible to crime, and make it impossible for police to protect the area or respond to incidents.

O’Donovan acknowledged the problem of under-reporting, but said that because we do not know how much crime goes unreported, we have to understand the numbers we have.

Census statistics show that about half of all precincts in South Africa are urbanised, and O’Donovan’s analysis shows that they experience high crime rates that rise as the level of income rises.

He said the numbers show that inequality within one precinct doesn’t seem to affect crime, but what does raise crime levels is the size of the income gap between a precinct and its poorest neighbouring area.

“Since South Africa is characterised by adjacent precincts with massive inequality between them, we have a high crime rate,” O’Donovan said.

Lower crime rates in rural areas is also a function of community values or “social capital” that can rein in individual behaviour, he argued.

Apartheid destroyed “social capital” that could have constrained behaviour, and economic differences between neighbouring areas are mostly so vast that social capital in one area has little currency in adjacent neighbourhoods, allowing individuals to act unconstrained — causing higher levels of crime in urban areas.

Richard Aitken, director of the Phoenix Zululand Restorative Justice Programme near Eshowe, who has worked with more than 1 000 prisoners and their families every year for the last eight years, supported O’Donovan.

“You can see from prison that when people don’t participate in social rituals and religious customs back home, when they miss rites of passage and funerals, it is extraordinarily damaging and may explain why people keep doing crime even after they know how bad prison is. Social capital makes all the difference,” said Aitken.


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