Friday, January 11, 2013


Reducing Crime: More Prisons or Less Lead?

Ian Birrell used to write speeches for David Cameron and is clearly a member of that small minority: a thinking Tory. His piece in The Guardian today focuses on prisons He praises the reduction in prisoners over the past year by 3000, though apportioning credit to Ken Clarke, not his hard line recidivist successor, Chris Grayling.

Grayling, is building a new super prison out in the sticks somewhere, suggesting he thinks it will help cut crime>

.As Grayling recognises, there is plenty of evidence that prison is among the most grotesque public service failures. In England and Wales we spend £45,000 a year on each inmate, far more than the fees for a public school like Eton, yet almost half reoffend within a year of leaving the prison gates; in some jails, seven out of ten end up back behind bars. The National Audit Office estimates that the cost of reoffending by recently released prisoners could be as high as £13bn, a crude financial calculation that excludes so many stories of human misery.

'We will suffer the consequences' predicts Birrell. But not if one surprising piece of scientific research proves correct.

This might seem at first sight a ludicrous suggestion: that traces of lead ingested into the bodies of young children, could play a role in the incidence of crime. George Monbiot in The Guardian, 8th January 2013 was himself skeptical:
 “Studies between cities, states and nations show that the rise and fall in crime follows, with a roughly 20-year lag, the rise and fall in the exposure of infants to trace quantities of lead. But all that gives us is correlation: an association that could be coincidental.”

But having studied the thoroughly respectable academic papers on the subject, Monbiot, writes:  

“The curve is much the same in all the countries these papers have studied. Lead was withdrawn first from paint and then from petrol at different times in different places (beginning in the 1970s in the US in the case of petrol, and the 1990s in many parts of Europe), yet despite these different times and different circumstances, the pattern is the same: violent crime peaks around 20 years after lead pollution peaks. The crime rates in big and small cities in the US, once wildly different, have now converged, also some 20 years after the phase-out.”.

Clearly more research will need to be undertaken but, the sudden fall in crime on both sides of the Atlantic has never been adequately explained, even by the most learned criminologists. Could this be the explanation? If it is we might just have to await the healing process of lead exclusion from our environment rather than rely on super prisons and other counter-productive measures.


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