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Perspectives on Policing Strategy By Chris Botha


Internal vs External controls in crime reduction:  Interpreting SOOTHILL & FRANCIS

by Chris Botha*


During early December 2010, the Institute for Security Studies (the ISS) hosted a conference titled National and International Perspectives on Crime and Policing: Towards a coherent strategy for crime reduction in South Africa beyond 2010. The papers delivered at the Conference were published by the ISS and are available on http://www.issafrica.org.

One of these papers, by Soothill & Francis (Considering paradigms of crime reduction in different contexts) is the subject of this article, and the result of enquiries by students at Southern Business School as to an interpretation of the authors’ arguments.

The article aims to clarify these arguments for the South African student of crime prevention, leave space to students to add their own interpretation in the South African context (such as the emphasis on crime control and the neglect of social crime prevention) and augment students’ progress on the structuring and referencing of scientific report writing.

In essence, Soothill & Francis (2011:1) argue that crime reduction is dependent on our ability to develop a society in which all people feel that they have a stake and, thus, develop internal controls to resist crime. The development of more prisons and more intrusive policing, which are measures of external controls, is a sad reflection of our failure to develop these internal controls.

Aspects of Soothill & Francis’ research

The authors identify four paradigms for crime reduction. These are (Soothill & Francis, 2011:3):

*           Relating to parental child-rearing methods

*           Relating to structural factors relating to the family during adolescence

*           Relating to localities / neighbourhoods

*           Relating to individual resource benefits

They proceed to identify several risk factors of crime, which they then display in terms of its relationship to the paradigms. Although they do not define these paradigms clearly in the article, the description of each may be determined by interrogating the risk factors assigned to the paradigms individually. Their results (Soothill & Francis, 2011:4-5) may be presented as follows:

Relating to parental child-rearing methodsSocial background:
Parental substance abuse, parental mental illness, domestic violence’ parental suicidal behaviour, child abuse or neglect.
Family background:
Child in care (“looked after children”), family separation.
Intergenerational transfer:
Mother teenager, mother convicted, father convicted.
Relating to structural factors relating to the family during adolescenceEducational qualifications of parents:
Mother has no vocational qualification, father has no vocational qualification.
Parental employment and poverty:
Parental unemployment more than 21 weeks, poverty (less than 40% of median income), parental disability pension.
Relating to localities / neighbourhoodsDisadvantaged area:
(Living in) a disadvantaged area, rented housing (not self-owner).
Relating to individual resource benefitsIndividual resources:
Unemployment more than 21 weeks, didn’t pass basic schooling level, not in process of training and education, not graduated, poverty (less than 50% of median level), psychiatric disorder, attempted suicide, drug addicted, alcohol abuse.

For comparative purposes, Soothill & Francis (2011:3) chose three types of crime, namely shoplifting, burglary and violent offences.  They chose these crimes because they are essentially open to all in the sense that they can be committed by anyone. Unlike, they say, “embezzlement (where employment is a prerequisite) or drink-driving (where access to a car is a prerequisite” (Soothill & Francis, 2011:3).  The authors then proceed to provide examples of crime reduction in these three types of crime if certain risk factors are eliminated.  These may be presented as follows (Soothill & Francis, 2011:6):

Domestic violence8979148
Child in care14520266
Family separation380261381
Not graduated647831985
Total first convicted198913241901

To assist students in the interpretation of the table above (and seen from within the boundaries of their study) the authors argue that the elimination of domestic violence (the risk factor) would lead to 89 less shopliftings, 79 less burglaries and 148 less crimes of violence. The rest can now be interpreted in the same manner.

The falling crime rate

Central to their study, is the authors’ discourse on “…the crime rates in many countries appear to have fallen” (Soothill & Francis, 2011:6). They use the word “appear”, for they take cognisance of the possibility that people have lost faith in the criminal justice system and are simply not reporting crimes to the authorities.  However, after a dissection of crime rates over country boundaries (Soothill & Francis, 2011:6-7), they are satisfied that the decline may be accepted as reality.

But what can be offered as an explanation for the declining crime rate? Levitt (in Soothill & Francis, 2011:8) reported on the most frequently cited reasons for the decline in crime in major newspapers.  This may be presented as follows:

Innovative policing strategies52
Increased reliance on prisons47
Changes in crack / other drug markets33
Aging population32
Tougher gun control laws32
Strong economy28
Increased number of police26
All other explanations34

In fact, an analysis of the work done by Levitt, Conklin as well as Zimring (in Soothill & Francis, 2011) shows that an increase in prison population is on top of the list in all three studies.

“Supposed” success?

However, Soothill & Francis are coy about issues such as the increased prison population, and innovative policing strategies as real reasons for the falling crime rate.  They refer to Zimring’s “euphoric fallacy”: an urge to assume that the players in the criminal justice system are the cause of the lower crime rates simply because the criminal justice actors have more powerful vested interests “to see their efforts as a cause of the benefits of lower crime rates” and “the advocates of the supposed success of the police and prisons are difficult to resist” (Soothill & Francis, 2011:10).  Their main concern stems from their findings on risk factors (and the crime reduction capabilities of these risk factors): the fact is that none of the commentators talking to the reduction of crime rates have taken issues related to the risk factors into account in their explanations of crime reduction.  At best, this seems to be a gap advantaging the criminal justice system and disadvantaging other thinking on crime reduction.

Two traditions: internal and external controls to crime reduction

The thinking explained above, of course, refers to two different traditions: “one stems from an ameliorative tradition of trying to make things better for offenders and potential offenders, while the other stems from a more social protection / social defence tradition which considers what society must do to protect itself from harm and potential harm” (Soothill & Francis, 2011:10).

The former tradition is nothing else but the “internal controls”, and the latter the “external controls”, in crime reduction. They argue that aspects such as good parenting, good education and job opportunities (internal controls) still have a major role to play in crime reduction.  They also argue that more policing and more prisons (external controls) are not necessary the only answer.

The external controls–discourse is not about changing people, but about containing people by increased police activity or by removing people from society (Soothill & Francis, 2011: 12).  The consequences for an “external controls” approach may be devastating on communities: prisoners leave saddened parents, abandoned mates, and fatherless children (Von Drehle, in Soothill & Francis, 2011: 13). The social and economic costs, the authors say, are enormous. Many totalitarian countries seem to have low crime rates, but living in such countries may be a high price to pay (Soothill & Francis, 2011:13).

Democratic countries should rather hope to achieve “internal controls”: people must want to conform to society’s rules (which in South Africa, we refer to as “voluntary obedience to the law”). A central feature of the “wanting to conform” approach, is found in the three elements of social bonding.  These elements are (Soothill & Francis, 2011:13-14):

*attachment: a human being’s capacity to become affectively (lovingly, caringly) involved with another person and hence sensitive to the other person’s thoughts, feelings and expectations, particularly in regard to the other person’s relevance for his/her own behaviour;

*commitment: the rational element in the social bond. Most individuals do not persist in activity unless there is something in it for them. That something may be a life without been exposed to crime; and

* beliefs: the human capacity to evaluate and take a stand on moral and social issues.

The individual has a strong option to choose a life of crime if these elements fail to develop, or if they are broken. Incapacitation (prison sentences) may well produce results in terms of lower crime rates, simply because the potential offender is in prison.  However, incapacitation produces permanent outcasts who must be locked up for long periods. When we neglect to help persons in building their own stake in society, they will not develop internal controls with which they can resist the temptation to commit crime (Soothill & Francis, 2011:14).


While it may indeed be true that one may be able to achieve lower crime rates by massive investments in measures of external control (high incarceration rates, more policing) we must ask some questions: is this the way that one wants a society to develop?  Is it desirable?

*Cluster manager, Policing Studies, Southern Business School

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