Skip to main content

Is There a Relationship Between Imprisonment and Crime in Western Europe?

Abstract

This article examines the evolution of prison populations in Western Europe from 1982 to 2011 and its relation with recorded crime trends in the region. Data are taken mainly from the Council of Europe Annual Penal Statistics in the case of prison statistics and the European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics in the case of police and conviction statistics, both complemented with the Nordic Criminal Statistics and Eurostat Crime Statistics. The results show that prison populations rates (stock) rose constantly until 2005 and seem relatively stable since then. On the contrary, the annual flow of entries into penal institutions has decreased almost continuously since 1987. This apparent paradox is explained by the fact that the average length of detention has steadily increased during the whole period under study. In brief, less people are sent to prison each year, but they remain in prison for longer periods of time. The upward trend in the average length of detention is related to the development of tough on crime policies across Western Europe and to the increase of drug offences and non-lethal violent crime until the mid-2000s. In that context, an analysis by offence shows similar trends in police, conviction, and prison statistics. These results falsify the hypothesis of total independence between crime trends and imprisonment rates. They also suggest that the deterrent effect of imprisonment has often been overestimated, and they cast a shadow on the validity of criminological theories that place property as the main cause of crime.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5

Notes

  1. While in this article the units of analysis are countries, it is also possible to conduct similar studies using states or cities as units.

  2. Ouimet (2012) also found a positive correlation between incarceration rates and homicide rates for the year 2010 and using a sample of 160 countries.

  3. For example, Aebi and Kuhn (2000: 73) “have serious doubts about the veracity” of their findings; while, according to Lappi-Seppäla (2011: 308) “we cannot rule out the possibility that incarceration rates are partly influenced by differences in crime, especially in the East European and Baltic countries. This applies especially to homicide. […] However, it is equally possible that high incarceration and homicide rates are both a product of a third factor. […] This hypothesis deserves further examination in the future”.

  4. In a similar perspective, one of the main critics that Nelken (2009, 2010) addresses to the work of Cavadino and Dignan (2006b) is that they, “like most of those comparing a large range of incarceration rates, spend little time on persuading us that crime rates are really the same in all the countries they are comparing” (Nelken 2010: 61).

  5. The acronym SPACE derives from the French title of this series: Statistiques Pénales Annuelles du Conseil de l’Europe.

  6. The annual SPACE surveys since 2000 are available at www.unil.ch/space (last accessed on 14 December 2014). The previous surveys are available only in paper format.

  7. Available at www.gov.uk/government/organisations/ministry-of-justice/about/statistics. Last accessed on 14 December 2014.

  8. Available at http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/data/database. Last accessed on 14 December 2014.

  9. Imagine a country in which ten persons enter into prison every year, of which two persons are sentenced to 5 years, two to 4 years, two to 3 years, two to 2 years, and two to 6 months. If one places this figures on a spreadsheet, it can be seen that, from the 5th year onward, the prison population of that country would be stable at 29 prisoners yearly. Thus, the stock of that hypothetical country is 29 and the flow 10, while the average length of the sentences is 2.9 years (5 + 5 + 4 + 4 + 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 + 0.5 + 0.5 = 29÷10 = 2.9). This means that knowing two of these numbers is it always possible to calculate the third one through the above formula. For example, with a stock of 29 and a flow of 10, the average length can be calculated by dividing the stock by the flow (29÷10) as 2.9 years or 34.8 months (2.9*12).

  10. “Geometric means are often more meaningful than arithmetic means, because they are closer to the central figure (median). […] To calculate the [geometric] mean of n numbers, […] multiply them, then take the n th root” (Taagepera 2008: 120). According to Dodge (1993: 248–9), the geometric mean is used in particular to calculate the average of ratios and reduces the influence of extreme values (outliers). Thus, it seems particularly appropriate for the data analyzed in this article, which include rates per 100,000 population and some outliers. In the field of crime trends, the geometric mean have been used namely by Eisner (2003) and Pinker (2011: 64).

  11. Linear interpolation and extrapolation are the standard procedures for the replacement of missing data, which are used, for example, by the World Health Organization for the calculation of regional averages of homicide according to health statistics (WHO 2014).

  12. Belgium, Denmark, England and Wales, Finland, France, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, and Sweden.

  13. This means that data on the distribution of the sentenced prisoners by offence as well as offences recorded by the police are available for England and Wales, Finland, France, Norway, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, and Sweden.

  14. It was impossible to include assault figures for England and Wales because of several major modifications in the legal definition and the statistical counting rules of that offence, which have increased artificially the number of assaults recorded by the police. Similarly, no reliable police data were available for theft and drug offences in Spain. Drug offences correspond to drug trafficking in England and Wales and to the total number of drug offences in the rest of the countries included in the analysis. Homicide corresponds to intentional homicide excluding attempts.

  15. Conviction data for 2011 were not yet available for most countries. Data on persons convicted usually includes attempts.

  16. Only the rate of persons convicted for drug offences registered a higher increase than the rate of police recorded drug offences.

  17. As mentioned in the section on Data and methods, no reliable data on police recorded assaults were available for England and Wales.

  18. Data on persons convicted for robbery in France were not available.

  19. The reader interested in such explanations can consult the essays collected by van Dijk et al. (2012) and Tonry (2014a). Solivetti (2010) has also provided a multivariate explanation that pays particular attention to the integration of foreigners in Western Europe.

  20. Nelken (2010: 56–70) has clearly addressed the issues at stake in the debate on punitiveness in industrialized societies, and the complexity of such a debate from a cross-national perspective.

  21. For a review of the main explanations proposed by researchers, see Blumstein and Wallman (2006) and Zimring (2007).

  22. See van Dijk (2006, 2008), van Dijk et al. (2007), Rosenfeld and Messner (2009) and Tonry (2010).

  23. See, for example, Farrell et al. (2011), Knepper (2012), and most of the essays collected by Van Dijk et al. (2012) and Tonry (2014a).

  24. Only England and Wales seems to be experiencing a general crime drop since the 1990s (Britton et al. 2012).

  25. The evolution of offences involving the use of guns deserves particular attention. As mentioned before, Tonry (1999) considers that the main difference in crime between Europe and the United States is that the US rates of homicides, robberies, and assaults involving guns are substantially higher than in Europe. In this perspective, serious violent crime involving weapons has decreased by 26 % in the United States from 2002 to 2011 (Truman and Planty 2012: 2). In Europe, in 2002/3, the police forces of England and Wales recorded 10,248 offences involving firearms; while in 2012/13 that number decreased to 5094 (Office for National Statistics 2013). In France, police statistics show that robberies with a firearm increased from 6500 in 1987 to 11,000 in 1993, and decreased after that until reaching in 2005 a lower level than in 1987; a similar trend was observed in prosecution statistics as the number of persons prosecuted for armed robberies decreased from 4200 in 1994 to 2500 in 2005 (Kensey 2007: 104). In our opinion, this decrease in the use of firearms could be one of the explanations of the contradiction between the decreasing homicide rates and the increasing rates of non-lethal violent offences in France. Indeed, the presence of a gun has a clear influence on the fatal outcome of cases of assault and domestic violence (Cook and Moore 1999: 281, with references). As a consequence, the decrease in lethal violence could be due to the decrease in the use of firearms. Indeed, as France shows in this respect the same general trends as Western Europe, the authors of this study are currently extending this kind of analysis to the rest of Europe.

  26. For example, the analysis of Lappi-Seppälä (2012: 213) shows that, in Finland, from 1998 to 2005, the length of uncustodial prison terms imposed by the courts for aggravated assault increased by 30 %, but for sexual offences the increase was 17 % and for aggravated drug offences 16 %, while the author provides no information on the length of the sentences imposed for property offences. Even if the analysis of Lappi-Seppälä (2012) also starts from a premise (i.e., the characteristics of the offences judged by the courts have been identical during the period under study), it seems plausible to accept —at least as a working hypothesis— that trends in the average length of detention vary across offences.

References

  • Aebi, M. F., & Delgrande, N. (2012). Council of Europe annual penal statistics – SPACE I: survey 2011. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.

    Google Scholar 

  • Aebi, M. F., & Kuhn, A. (2000). Influences on the prisoner rate: number of entries into prison, length of sentences and crime rate. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, 8(1), 65–75.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Aebi, M. F., & Linde, A. (2010). Is there a crime drop in Western Europe? European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, 16(4), 251–277.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Aebi, M. F., & Linde, A. (2012a). Conviction statistics as an indicator of crime trends in Europe from 1990 to 2006. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, 18(1), 103–144.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Aebi, M. F., & Linde, A. (2012b). Crime trends in Western Europe according to official statistics from 1990 to 2007. In J. J. M. van Dijk, A. Tseloni, & G. Farrell (Eds.), The international crime drop: New directions in research (pp. 37–75). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Aebi, M. F., & Linde, A. (2012c). Regional variation in Europe between homicide and other forms of external death and criminal offences (1970–2008). In M. C. A. Liem & W. A. Pridemore (Eds.), Handbook of European homicide research: patterns, explanations, and country studies (pp. 71–94). New York: Springer.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Aebi, M. F., & Linde, A. (2014). The persistence of lifestyles: rates and correlates of homicide in Western Europe from 1960 to 2010. European Journal of Criminology, 11(5), 552–577.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Aebi, M. F. et al. (2006). European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics – 2006. 3rd edition. Den Haag: Boom Juridische Uitgevers. Available online at: http://www3.unil.ch/wpmu/europeansourcebook/files/2012/05/European-Sourcebook_3rd-ed_2006.pdf.

  • Aebi, M. F. et al. (2010). European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics – 2010. 4th edition. Den Haag: Boom Juridische Uitgevers. Available online at: http://english.wodc.nl/onderzoeksdatabase/european-sourcebook-4e-editie.aspx?cp=45&cs=6796.

  • Aebi, M. F. et al. (2014). European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics – 2014. 5th edition. Helsinki: HEUNI. Available online at: http://www.heuni.fi/material/attachments/heuni/reports/qrMWoCVTF/HEUNI_report_80_European_Sourcebook.pdf.

  • Blumstein, A., &Wallman, J. (2006). The Crime Drop in America. Revised edition. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press.

  • Bottoms, A. E. (1995). The philosophy and politics of punishment and sentencing. In C. Clarkson & R. Morgan (Eds.), The politics of sentencing reform (pp. 17–49). Oxford: Clarendon.

    Google Scholar 

  • Britton, A., Kershaw, C., Osborne, S., & Smith, K. (2012). Underlying patterns within the England and Wales crime drop. In J. J. M. van Dijk, A. Tseloni, & G. Farrell (Eds.), The international crime drop: New directions in research (pp. 159–181). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cavadino, M., & Dignan, J. (2006a). Penal policy and political economy. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 6(4), 435–456.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cavadino, M., & Dignan, J. (2006b). Penal systems: A comparative approach. London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  • Clark, R. (1970). Crime in America. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cohen, S. (1979). The punitive city: notes on the dispersal of social control. Crime, Law and Social Change, 3(4), 339–363.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cook, P. J., & Moore, M. H. (1999). Guns, Gun control, and homicide: A review of research and public policy. In M. D. Smith & M. A. Zahn (Eds.), Homicide: A sourcebook of social research (pp. 277–296). Thousands Oaks: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  • CoE - Council of Europe. (1999). European sourcebook of crime and criminal justice statistics. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dodge, Y. (1993). Statistique: Dictionnaire encyclopédique. Paris: Dunod.

    Google Scholar 

  • Donohue, J. J., & Siegelman, P. (1998). Allocating resources among prisons and social programs in the battle against crime. Journal of Legal Studies, 27(1), 1–43.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Eisner, M. (2003). Long-term historical trends in violent crime. Crime and Justice, 30, 83–142.

    Google Scholar 

  • Eisner, M. (2014). From swords to words: does macro-level change in self-control predict long-term variation in levels of homicide? Crime and Justice, 43, 65–134.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Farrell, G., Tseloni, A., Mailley, J., & Tilley, N. (2011). The crime drop and the security hypothesis. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 48(2), 147–175.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Garland, D. (2001). The culture of control: crime and social order in contemporary society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Garland, D. (2013). Penality and the Penal State. Criminology51(3), 475–517.

  • Gruszczyńska, B. Z., & Heiskanen, M. (2012). Trends in police-recorded offences. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, 18(1), 83–102.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Harrendorf, S., Heiskanen M., Malby, S. (2010). International Statistics on Crime and Justice. Helsinki / Vienna: European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control (HEUNI) / United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

  • Kensey, A. (2007). Prison et récidive. Des peines plus longues : la société est-elle vraiment mieux protégée? Paris: Armand Colin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Killias M. et al. (2003). European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics 2003. Den Haag: Boom Juridische uitgevers. Available online at: http://www.minjust.nl:8080/b_organ/wodc/reports/ob212i.htm.

  • Knepper, P. (2012). An international crime decline: lessons for social welfare crime policy? Social Policy and Administration, 46(4), 359–376.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kuhn, A., Tournier, P., & Walmsley, R. (2000). Report on prison overcrowding and prison population inflation. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lappi-Seppälä, T. (2011). Explaining imprisonment in Europe. European Journal of Criminology, 8(4), 303–328.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lappi-Seppälä, T. (2012). Criminology, crime and criminal justice in Finland. European Journal of Criminology, 9(2), 206–222.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Levitt, S. D. (1998). Juvenile crime and punishment. Journal of Political Economy, 106(6), 1156–1185.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Levitt, S. D. (2004). Understanding why crime fell in the 1990s: four factors that explain the decline and six that do not. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18(1), 163–190.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Melossi, D. (2001). Le crime de la modernité : sanctions, crime et migration en Italie (1863–1997). Sociologie et Societes, 33(1), 85–106.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Morin, E. (1992). Method: Towards a Study of Humankind. Vol. 1: The Nature of Nature. New York: Peter Lang (First published in French in 1977: La méthode. Tome 1: La nature de la nature. Paris: Seuil

  • Nelken, D. (2009). Comparative criminal justice beyond ethnocentrism and relativism. European Journal of Criminology, 6(4), 291–311.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nelken, D. (2010). Comparative criminal justice. Los Angeles: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  • Newburn, T. (2007). Criminology. Cullompton: Willan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Office for National Statistics. (2013). Crime in England and Wales, year ending March 2013. London: Office for National Statistics.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ouimet, M. (2012). L’argent et le sang: comment la pauvreté et les homicides expliquent les variations du taux d’incarcération dans le monde en 2010. Revue Internationale de Criminologie et de Police Technique et Scientifique, 65(2), 239–263.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: why violence has declined. New York: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Roberts, J. V., Stalans, L. J., Indermaur, D., & Hough, M. (2002). Penal populism and public opinion: lessons from five countries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rosenfeld, R., & Messner, S. F. (2009). The crime drop in comparative perspective: the impact of the economy and imprisonment on American and European burglary rates. The British Journal of Sociology, 60(3), 445–471.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Snacken, S., & Dumortier, E. (Eds.). (2012). Resisting punitiveness in Europe?: Welfare, human rights and democracy. Abingdon: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Solivetti, L. M. (2010). Immigration, social integration and crime. A cross-national approach. Oxon: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Spelman, W. (2000). What recent studies Do (and don’t) tell us about imprisonment and crime. Crime and Justice, 27, 419–494.

    Google Scholar 

  • Taagepera, R. (2008). Making social sciences more scientific: the need for predictive models. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Taylor, I., Walton, P., & Young, J. (2012). Critical criminology in Britain: review and prospects. In I. Taylor, P. Walton, & J. Young (Eds.), Critical criminology. Oxon: Routledge. First published in 1975.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tonry, M. (1999). Why are U.S. Incarceration rates so high? Crime & Delinquency, 45(4), 419–437.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tonry, M. (2010). Why are crime rates falling (or are they)? Criminology in Europe: Newsletter of the European Society of Criminology, 9(1), 3.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tonry, M. (Ed.) (2014a). Why Crime Rates Fall, and Why They Don’t. Crime and Justice, 43. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

  • Tonry, M. (2014b). Why crime rates are falling throughout the western world. Crime and Justice, 43, 1–63.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tournier, P. V. (2004). Systems of Conditional Release (Parole) in the Member States of the Council of Europe. Champ pénal/Penal field [online], I/2004. Available online at (27-11-2012): http://champpenal.revues.org/378

  • Tournier, P. V. (2011). Arithmétique pénitentiaire. Arpenter le Champ pénal, 9(Supplément d’été N° 4), 2–8.

    Google Scholar 

  • Truman, J. L., & Planty, M. (2012). Criminal victimization, 2011. Washington: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

    Google Scholar 

  • Van Dijk, J. J. M. (2006). What Goes up, comes down: Explaining the falling crime rates. Criminology in Europe: Newsletter of the European Society of Criminology, 5(3), 3, 17–18.

  • Van Dijk, J. J. M. (2008). The world of crime: breaking the silence on problems of security, justice, and development across the world. Los Angeles: Sage.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Van Dijk, J. J. M., Tseloni, A., & Farrell, G. (Eds.). (2012). The international crime drop: New directions in research (pp. 159–181). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Van Dijk, J. J. M., van Kesteren, J., & Smit, P. (2007). Criminal victimization in international perspective: Key findings from the 2004–2005 ICVS and EU ICS. Den Haag: Boom Juridische Uitgevers.

    Google Scholar 

  • WHO – World Health Organization. (2014). Health for all database (HfA). Technical notes. [Geneva: World Health Organization]. Available online at: http://data.euro.who.int/hfadb/help/Technical%20notes.htm. Accessed 18 Feb 2015.

  • Vanneste, C. (2001). Les chiffres des prisons: Des logiques économiques à leur traduction pénale. Paris: L’Harmattan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Von Hofer, H., Lappi-Seppälä, T., & Westfelt, L. (2012). Nordic criminal statistics 1950–2010. Stockholm: Kriminologiska institutionen, Stockholms universitet.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wacquant, L. (1998). La tentation pénale en Europe. Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, 124, 3–6.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zimring, F. E. (2007). The great American crime decline. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Zimring, F. E., & Hawkins, G. (1997). Crime is not the problem: lethal violence in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Marcelo F. Aebi.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Aebi, M.F., Linde, A. & Delgrande, N. Is There a Relationship Between Imprisonment and Crime in Western Europe?. Eur J Crim Policy Res 21, 425–446 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10610-015-9274-x

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10610-015-9274-x

Keywords

  • Average length of detention
  • Crime trends
  • Imprisonment rates
  • Flow
  • Stock
  • Violent offences
  • Western Europe