‘The Vanishing Criminal – Causes of Decline in Australia’s Crime Rate’ – a book review

This is a very interesting and useful book, trying to explain why Australia’s crime rate has fallen in many areas, and continues to do so.  That fall is also found in other comparable countries – Canada, New Zealand and more. I attended the launch of the book by its authors – Don Weatherburn and Sara Rahman – on 17 February 2021. 

The authors methodically and with rigour go through each of the various suggested causes of the fall in crime rates and discount them or accord them some relevance.  Apart from the crimes themselves and the start of their decline – homicide, from the late 1980s, property crime, since 2001, and assault, since 2008 – there are also different rates of fall and varied bases of assessment or estimate, and some overseas comparisons.  Rates for sexual assault crimes have not fallen in Australia, but nor have they significantly risen; which contrasts with sustained falls in the UK and the US.

The authors then give their conclusions, necessarily tentative in many cases.  The fall and the reasons allow us to also see other trends in society over time that may have had their separate impacts, good and bad – an ageing population being a obvious one, better medical treatment and greater economic prosperity, and better policing.  The (mostly beneficial) impacts of COVID-19 on crime rates are also mentioned.

It is somehow odd to see a discipline that has worked hard at determining causes of crime and how crime might be reduced, to be suddenly finding that crime rates have already fallen, with the discipline’s experts now scrambling to find out how and why.

Being necessarily selective, given the detail of the authors’ analysis, the book looks at better policing, a fall in heroin use, car immobilisers, better home security, higher imprisonment rates and better medical attention to gunshot victims. The authors refer to many academic assessments of each possible reason for the fall in crime, the methodology and validity, and the statistics available. These analyses steer a middle course directed both at those trained in such methods and at general readers interested in gaining some understanding of how crimes figures are assessed.  Any such analyses test one’s capacity to think logically, with some outcomes being counter-intuitive.  How people respond to increased penalties or the perception of a likelihood of apprehension is not always as we may think.

As to thinking, the book inevitably refers to the [mis]use of criminal statistics by politicians, and by the media, both appealing to some fear element of human psychology such that, for example, the community’s level of worry about crime is much higher than the reality. Penal and criminal law and policy is sadly driven by such perspectives.

As to the law, while the work of criminologists is necessarily based on what the law defines as a crime, the book is not written so much for lawyers, with no specifics of the crimes being discussed, more the relevant categories – sexual assault, drug-related violence, property crime.

Australia’s criminal laws are state and territory based, with federal crimes being an overlay.  Some would see that as unfortunate[1] but given the political aspects of crime, this is unlikely to change.  Hence, there are extradition proceedings between states, and occasionally an issue comes up such as in one case where the question arose of the relevant jurisdiction to try someone who shot the victim from the other side of the Murray River.[2]

That leads into one issue I have with the title of the book – ‘Australian crime’ – which caused me to think it would not be confined to state crime, which it is.  That is a useful focus in itself, if somewhat populist.  Given the reality of state based laws, the book must rely at times to one or two states’ crime statistics, the usual lack of co-ordination across jurisdictions evident, if no doubt improving, and with the Australian Institute of Criminology being relied upon throughout.

But as to federal crime, I assume it remains the case that ‘white collar crime’ remains a significant harm to society, and often of more adverse impact than many state crimes – tax evasion, corruption, human trafficking, drug importation, money laundering, child sex abuse offences.  Politics pervades that area as well, with, in my area of interest, 10 years jail now available for unlawful phoenixing[3] with detection and preventive options still pending.[4]  But at least some of the examined possible causes of the drop in crime could impact federal offences.  The authors might have given some short explanation for not mentioning those, even if it had been that this was another area for analysis.

So, as to why crime rates have dropped – the authors’ answers come from within a range of reasons but with no one factor being responsible for the fall in crime. Law enforcement, the police and the courts are each mere factors, along with a drop in alcohol consumption, low demand (and value) for stolen consumer goods and a fall in heroin dependence.  COVID-19’s ‘working from home’ phenomenon may have caused a drop in some crimes.  Of the major crimes, the “fall in Australian homicide rates remains an enigma”.  But other opportunities may be increasing – identity theft and scamming being some. The methamphetamine ‘epidemic’ is a lurking problem.

Ultimately, the authors say that best immediate options to control or reduce crime remain the same – blocking the opportunities for crime, increasing the risk of apprehension and removing the rewards.

As the blurb rightly says, the conclusions in the book “will surprise many and (should) shape the terms for discussion well into the future”, though probably excluding many politicians and much media.

The Vanishing Criminal – Causes of Decline in Australia’s Crime Rate, Don Weatherburn and Sara Rahman, MUP, 2021

Comment welcome.

Michael Murray LLB Dip Crim (Syd)


[1] Australia has 9 distinct State or Territory criminal law jurisdictions, lacking in uniformity with little political pressure for harmonisation – an ‘insane’ system, according to a former state Attorney General. Canada, South Africa and New Zealand have unitary criminal justice systems.

[2] R v Graham [1984] VR 649.

[3] Treasury Laws Amendment (Combating Illegal Phoenixing) Act 2020.

[4] Phoenix activity – recommendations on detection, disruption and enforcement, February 2017, Anderson, Ramsay, Welsh and Hedges. The new law’s limitations in controlling phoenix misconduct | Murrays Legal Commentary.  See also white collar crime | Murrays Legal Commentary

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