Tough on crime: the rhetoric and reality of property crime and feeling safe in Australia

Crime Australia


Contrary to public perception, the property crime rate in Australia actually declined between 2001 and 2010. There is a reality gap between declining crime rates and the popular rhetoric of ‘tough on crime’ media stories and political policies. Campaigning in the recent West Australian, New South Wales and Victorian state elections saw both sides of politics rely on tried and tested ‘tough on crime’ approaches to justice policies. Despite the falling rate of property crime, a ‘tough on crime’ approach to property crime continues to be promoted and pursued in some jurisdictions. An example of this is the use of mandatory sentencing for property crimes in Western Australia.

As the property crime rate has fallen, there has been a corresponding increase in reported feelings of safety. There was a smaller increase in reported safety levels in Western Australia compared with the national average, which suggests that mandatory sentencing has not provided a greater sense of safety.

Perceptions of social disorder had the greatest overall influence on people's reported feelings of safety, followed by reported levels of nervousness. This finding suggests the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric still used by some politicians and sections of the media may have had a counter influence on recorded increases in feelings of safety.

Whenever politicians talk about getting ‘tough on crime’, or the media selectively reports criminal justice stories, there is the potential for an increase in public nervousness and perceptions of social disorder. Such an increase is going to reduce feelings of safety among some Australians. Alternatively, balanced reporting and considered policy proposals from politicians have the potential to improve feelings of safety.

Localised crime prevention programs are an opportunity to demonstrate to the community that steps are being taken to address crime. Such initiatives have the potential to change how a neighbourhood is perceived and may affect people’s tendencies to feel nervous. Although community engagement policies have the potential to increase reported feelings of safety, improvements could be made to how such programs are implemented.

This paper provides evidence that will support politicians who wish to propose constructive policy responses to criminal behaviour and people’s fears of crime, rather than falling back on well-worn ‘tough on crime’ responses. Similarly, balanced reporting that includes positive stories about declining crime rates is likely to influence how people perceive disorder in their neighbourhood and the amount of time they spend feeling nervous, with the potential to positively affect how safe they feel.

The facts are that property crime rates in Australia fell between 2001 and 2010 and Australians reported feeling safer. There is a good news story in this paper.

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