Crime prevention and criminal justice reform

Traditional criminal justice responses to crime, including penal legislation, law enforcement, the prosecution and adjudication of criminal offences all aim at preventing crime by deterring criminal behavior through the establishment of individual criminal accountability and more broadly of the rule of law. Crime prevention as addressed in the United Nations guidelines for the prevention of crime is a broader concept grounded in the notion that there are risk factors at individual, family, community and wider society levels that can place individuals at higher risk for crime, violence and victimization. The Guidelines outline several approaches to prevention, including the promotion of well-being of people through social, economic, health and educational measures; changing conditions in neighborhoods that influence offending; reducing opportunities, increasing risks of being apprehended; and preventing recidivism by assisting in the social reintegration of offenders.

The Challenges

Despite advances in the various disciplines and scientific knowledge related to crime prevention in the last decades, countries continue to face multiple challenges in the development and implementation of comprehensive crime prevention policies and programmes, this is especially the case for low and middle-income countries. Besides the fact that in many countries the resources devoted to prevention are not commensurate with the extent of the crime problems, challenges relate to collection and analysis on crime data and root causes; effective coordination between the relevant sectors of government; the contribution of key actors in the criminal justice system; and the measurement of the impact of policies and programmes.

The social and economic costs associated with crime and violence

Costs resulting from crime and violence are high as health and social consequences of violence take a heavy economic toll on countries, sometimes amounting to several percentages of a country's gross domestic product. Direct costs associated with violence include the provision of treatment, mental health services, emergency care and criminal justice responses whereas indirect costs relate to economic losses linked to the fact that victims of violence are more likely to experience spells of unemployment, absenteeism, and to suffer health problems that affect job performance.

Targeting risk- and protective factors

Crime prevention comprises strategies and measures that seek to reduce the risk of crimes occurring, and their potential harmful effects on individuals and society by intervening to influence their multiple causes and strengthen protective factors, i.e. those factors that help diminish the probability of violent behavior leading to crime. In short; risk and protective factors help to explain why a problem such as crime or violence exist and suggest why certain individuals or groups are more or less likely to become victims of crime or to become involved in crime.

Examples of risk factors include low self-esteem, substance abuse, poverty, unemployment and poverty, family distress or violence, low literacy and early school drop out. Examples of protective factors include positive self-esteem, good mental, physical and emotional health, good parenting, good performance at school, steady employment, access to services (social, recreational) etc.

Authorities need reliable data on crime and related factors to develop and implement effective prevention strategies, policies and programmes. On the basis of the public health model, a distinction can be made between primary crime prevention (universal measures targeting broad population groups), secondary crime prevention (focusing on population groups at risk of offending) and tertiary crime prevention (focusing on known offenders to prevent recidivism). Prevention can address different institutional and other settings, including families, schools, communities, labour markets, specific places, police agencies and courts and correctional facilities.

Risk factors at different levels: