What Works to Reduce Crime?: A Summary of the Evidence

The review examines the research evidence on what works to reduce crime. It focuses on three key strategies: 1)targeting the underlying causes of crime 2)deterring potential offenders by ensuring that the cost of offending is greater than the benefits and 3)increasing the difficulty of offending by reducing opportunities to commit crime.


This paper has been prepared to support strategic thinking about how best to achieve National Outcome 9 of the Scottish Government's National Performance Framework: We live our lives safe from crime, disorder and danger, and in particular to support the Building Safer Communities programme. The precursor for this review of evidence was a logic model that aimed to set out all the possible pathways for reducing crime. This model was developed in collaboration with policy colleagues in Justice and Safer Communities Directorates, a cross-office reference group of relevant policy colleagues, analysts within Justice and experts in crime and justice working in the academic sector and set out four broad strategies for reducing crime:

  1. Addressing the underlying causes of crime so that the urge or need to offend is reduced;
  2. Deterring those who do have the urge to offend by ensuring that the costs of offending outweigh the benefits;
  3. Reducing the opportunities for crime so that those who have the urge and whose behaviour has not been moderated by deterrence strategies simply find it difficult to offend;
  4. Intervening with those who have already offended to reduce the risk of recidivism.

This approach recognises that offending is a function of both distal factors - underlying factors that can have their origin early in the life course - and proximal factors - the immediate precursors of a criminal event. Any approach to reducing crime therefore has to address both. There is also a parallel here with Brantingham and Faust's[3] typology of crime prevention which distinguishes between: primary prevention which involves working with the general population to address potentially criminogenic factors before the onset of a problem; secondary prevention which involves working with people or places identified as 'at risk'; and tertiary prevention which is directed towards existing offenders and focused on preventing recidivism. In moving across our four strategies, the focus of intervention will therefore tend to shift from a wider to a narrower target population.

The logic model also set out all of the potential approaches that could be adopted within each of the first three of these strategies. It did not consider how to reduce the risk of recidivism since this is the focus of a separate published review of the literature on Reducing Reoffending[4].

The aim of this review was to test the evidence about each of these approaches or pathways with a view to identifying which are likely to be the most effective in reducing crime. The aim was not to set out the pathways that are currently being pursued, but rather to provide a form of option appraisal about how we might tackle crime. The logic model and this review does not therefore say anything about current government strategy and policy. The objective was to identify some key messages for the Building Safer Communities programme and to inform an assessment of whether the Scottish Government needs to be doing more, or something different to tackle crime.

It is also worth highlighting that this paper does not claim to provide a comprehensive account of all of the evidence relevant to the model. It is simply an initial attempt to pull together the material that could be identified and accessed in the space of limited timescales. There are therefore gaps in the evidence - pathways that could not be tested against the evidence in the time that was available (such as restricting access to drugs in Part Three) and there will undoubtedly be other relevant evidence that was not identified at the time of the review. It is hoped that this paper will remain a work in progress and represent a framework on which to hang new and existing evidence as it becomes available or is identified in the future.


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