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Crime prevention in South Africa by Chris Botha


Best thinking as an alternative to best practice in crime prevention: An interpretation of BERG & SHEARING’S offering

by Chris Botha*


This is an interpretation of an article by Julie Berg and Clifford Shearing, titled The practice of crime prevention: Design principles for more effective security governance which was published in the SA Crime Quarterly (No 36, June 2011). The interpretation aims to assist South African crime prevention students in understanding the content of the article and to augment their learning on scientific report writing.

Setting the scene

Berg & Shearing (2011:23) argue that crime prevention is very much a second cousin within the South African criminal justice family, in spite the availability of policy frameworks such as the National Crime Prevention Strategy (NCPS) of 1996 and the White Paper on Safety and Security (1998).  They therefore proceed to review some of the principal obstacles to effective crime prevention and propose three design principles that should assist in establishing crime prevention as a central focus of South Africa’s security governance. In the process, they offer a broad definition of crime prevention (…it involves simply asking the question: How can we reduce the likelihood of this happening again? – Berg & Shearing, 2011:23).  They describe their proposed design principles as “best thinking”, rather than as “best practice”.

A central theme of the article: blaming and punishment

The authors aim to transfer the current practice of “blaming” to thinking about “prevention” (Berg & Shearing, 2011:25), and they do so in terms of crime, institutions and money.

They argue that we should be thinking of “harm”, rather than “crime” because the moment we talk of “crime” we can expect a blaming response: we consider the issue to be settled once someone has been blamed and punished for a crime.  Although blaming and punishment is a necessary part of finding a solution to the (crime/harm) problem, it is not the whole solution: those circumstances or issues that gave rise to the problem should be addressed in order to prevent the likelihood of this happening again (their definition above).  Therefore, if we insist to stop at the blaming-and-punishment part of finding a solution, crime prevention will of necessity stay the second cousin within the criminal justice family – and a poor and neglected second cousin at that (Berg & Shearing, 2011:24).

Since our institutions dealing with crime/harm (all those within the criminal justice system or family, such as the police, the courts and the corrective systems) work in terms of blaming and punishing, one cannot expect those institutions to deliver preventative solutions (Berg & Shearing, 2011:26). Their focus will of necessity be on finding the responsible person(s) and punishing them. The only crime prevention relationship would therefore be in terms of deterrence, but the root causes of crime or harm will fall by the wayside. Therefore, one should consider a “whole of society” approach: we should mobilise resources from both state and non-state actors and align these with context-specific solutions (Berg & Shearing, 2011: 26). In this sense, the reader will be able to link Burger’s (2007) view of the “impossible mandate” to the discourse.

To achieve the above, Berg & Shearing (2011:26) propose that the flow of money be changed. They argue that most, indeed almost all, of our tax monies allocated to security governance are spent on blaming and punishing (Berg & Shearing, 2011: 26). Money should rather be linked to how can we reduce the likelihood of this happening again? (Berg & Shearing, 2011:27). Currently, we give the money to the criminal justice institutions and they spend it in terms of blaming and punishing. Therefore, one of the reasons we have so little prevention, is simply because we do not give enough money towards prevention.

The central theme of the article as outlined above, should therefore be translated into design principles (Berg & Shearing, 2011:27).

Design principles

The authors argue that we are in a thinking rut in terms of the way we think about crime, the institutions we have designed to govern crime and the way we have spent our tax money (Berg & Shearing, 2011: 27). We should therefore start with our thinking: practice follows thinking, which means if we have “best thinking”, we could have “best practice”. The “best thinking” approach allows us to design “principles” which will affect “practice”. Identifying “best practices”, they say, usually entails drawing on the ways of doing things that have worked in one context, and then applying these “ways of doing things” to another context. The problem is that practices that have worked in one context will often not work in another (Berg & Shearing, 2011:27). Therefore, to implement prevention in a meaningful, context-specific way one needs to identify the ways of thinking, or principles, underlying the practices (Berg & Shearing, 2011:27).

Consequently, the authors discuss three design principles needed to effect meaningful crime prevention. These design principles are:

Design principle 1: Limit governing though crime to a minimum, and insist on governing harm

In essence, we should think more carefully about the harms we may face.  We should think on whether these harms should be thought of as crimes, or as risk to be managed in other, more preventative ways (Berg & Shearing, 2011:27). They illustrate this by referring to any well-run company that is focused on reducing its losses rather than on simply blaming and punishing (Berg & Shearing, 2011:27).

Design principle 2: Reshape the institutional environment within which harms are governed

Berg & Shearing (2011:28) make use of the Northern Ireland experience to illustrate their point in this principle: as soon as a Policing Board (as opposed to a Police Board) was established, the focus was shifted from the Police (as an organisation) to policing (as a function of society). This enabled non-blaming activities to also be supported.

Design principle 3: Change the flows of money so that it is channelled to institutions and activities that support crime prevention

The central argument in this design principle is, consequently, for governments to shift their focus from “institutional budgets” (that go to the established blaming institutions), to “functional budgets” that are explicitly designed to support preventative activities (Berg & Shearing, 2011:28). One may therefore be in a position to fund a wide range of initiatives, from a local community patrol to an early childhood development centre (Berg & Shearing, 2011:28). Partnership initiatives between statutory agencies (such as the police, education, etc), voluntary agencies and groups (such as non-governmental organisations and community based organisations) and the private sector may then be funded through a functional budget aimed at achieving the aims of specific crime prevention projects.

Conclusion: Towards reviewing the article

The article is a typical example of excellent abstract thinking. The authors have moved “outside the box” in preparing and submitting their argument. Such “best thinking” initiatives are to be welcomed in the South African crime prevention discourse. We have a well-designed policy framework (the NCPS and the White Paper referred to), yet we could do much better with crime reduction. The authors’ views may advance the discourse, and should be read.

Having said this, one must entertain the possibility that the governance structure in general may be uncomfortable with this view. This is simply because it is such a new way of thinking about crime prevention, and governance structures are not always open to somewhat radical views. Also, the money-is-power view may still persist in individual departments within the governance structure, which view may have an adverse effect on the article’s proposals.

The progress of the Western Cape Safety Partnership (Berg & Shearing, 2011: 26 & 28) should therefore be watched closely, since it will give us some indication of reaction by governance structures in “best thinking” initiatives.


*Manager of Policing Studies at Southern Business School

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