Crime and Justice

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Although most countries within Europe had at least rudimentary statistics on crime and disorder by the beginning of the twentieth century, drawing cross-national comparisons is a hazardous enterprise. Laws varied between countries, as did the ways in which those laws were implemented and criminal statistics classified. Changes over time and between countries in access to telephones or cars, inevitably had an impact on the willingness and the ability of the public to report crimes, as indeed did their relationships with the police. Political concerns also meant that crime data for Soviet bloc countries was rarely reliable. That said, there appears to have been a steady increase in reported crime throughout the twentieth century, albeit the pace of change varied. In Ireland, for example, the postwar rise in recorded crime was far greater in (British) Northern Ireland than in the Irish Republic; in England and Wales the postwar increase began much earlier than it did in the Netherlands.

However, it was not until the widespread deployment of victim surveys in the 1980s that researchers were able to draw direct comparisons. The first International Crime Victimisation Survey (ICVS) was completed in 1989, and repeated in 1992, 1996–1997, and 2000, providing a partial, but nonetheless welcome basis for addressing crime concerns within Europe. This reveals that car-related crime and other property crime predominate, and interpersonal crime, including robbery, is less common. Over the twenty-year period, risk of crime appears to have been relatively high in England and Wales and the Netherlands, lower elsewhere, with Northern Ireland notably having low rates for conventional crimes despite political unrest. In general, public attitudes are positively correlated with levels of risk. For example, "fear" of crime has been relatively high in England and Wales, and early-twenty-first-century falls in concern over burglary parallel a decline in levels of burglary, with risk halving in England and Wales in the 1990s. Among former Eastern bloc countries, government corruption appears to be a particular problem. Official statistics and data from the ICVS also indicate a rise in crime during the 1990s, but partly as a result of the greater publicity given to crime and disorder issues, public concern increased markedly. This in turn affects considerations about appropriate policing styles and sentencing strategies.


The political map of Europe has changed dramatically since 1914. Two world wars and their aftermath, and the emergence of the Soviet empire and its dissolution, have shifted both national boundaries and alliances. This clearly has an impact upon criminal justice policy. Invading powers, principally Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, imposed their own models of policing and control on their satellites, and one of the first priorities of the governments of liberation was to reestablish their own systems. Other influences, both within and outside Europe, have also applied. The Council of Europe and the European Union (EU) have each been instrumental in encouraging members (and in the latter case prospective members) to attain minimum standards. From outside, international bodies such as the United Nations, Amnesty International, and Interpol, and countries such as the United States, have equally attempted to influence core criminal justice policies within European nation-states. Such approaches have been supplemented with the expansion of the global village, whereby policy makers consciously examine examples of good practice from abroad and assess how they might be adapted for home consumption.

Nevertheless, the concept of a European approach to crime and disorder is a misnomer. National traditions have been modified, in many cases overturned, but national distinctions are still evident. There are still more differences in the approaches of European countries to crime and disorder than there are similarities.


By the early twentieth century, all European nations had at least one professional police system. However, differences in the ways these were structured and controlled and the range of responsibilities accorded the police were marked. As Brian Chapman noted, on much of continental Europe there was a long tradition of powerful, centralized police organizations. Within Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, consequently, the police systems that achieved notoriety were variants of a traditional model, rather than a new invention. The specter of this all-powerful weapon of state control was a major reason why a modern police system was so strongly resisted in England, and why the model of policing adopted there in the nineteenth century was so different.

For example, Raymond Fosdick, a New York police administrator who toured Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, contrasted systems of continental Europe with those of England and Wales and the United States. Although scarcely a scientific analysis, his account highlighted a number of differences between the typical Continental force and the situation in England and Wales. In the former, the police was centralized, in the latter locally based; in the former, a paramilitary body, in the latter routinely armed only with a truncheon; in the former, responsible for a range of administrative roles in addition to crime control, in the latter adopting a service-orientation to crime control.

Nevertheless, as Fosdick acknowledged, there were considerable variations within continental Europe, with perhaps the most extreme examples in western Europe to be found in France, Italy, and Spain. However, in none of these countries was there only one centralized and all-powerful force. This was partly because, following the French Revolution, rulers were reluctant to ascribe too much power to one body, so one centralized paramilitary force was often counterbalanced with either a second national body or a plethora of local urban forces. Interestingly, because the major threats to control were seen to come from abroad, across national boundaries, or from within, with mass marches on the capital, the more centralized and militaristic police forces invariably covered the countryside. In France, for example, the gendarmerie was responsible for maintaining order in rural areas, being housed in police barracks locally and supported in emergencies by the gendarmerie mobile. In contrast, local forces policed the larger cities, before being incorporated into a second centralized force, the police nationale, in 1966.

In other parts of Continental Europe, a local input was more evident. In Germany, for example, there was a commitment to county (or lander) autonomy. The West German police system was also radically changed in the postwar period by the Allies, with administrative responsibilities scaled down and the structure demilitarized In the Netherlands, before reform in the 1990s, the power and wealth of the cities meant that the balance between urban forces and a national gendarmerie covering the countryside was rather different than in France. Scandinavian police systems have also tended to be localized, although the Swedish system was centralized between 1965 and 1984.

On mainland Britain, the paid police evolved somewhat differently. The vast array of county and metropolitan forces spawned in the nineteenth century was rationalized in the twentieth century, with amalgamations eventually leading to forty-three forces in England and Wales and eight in Scotland. From the beginning, officers were uniformed. While in the United States early developments comprised a resistance to uniforms, these being seen as militaristic reminders of a colonial past, in Britain uniforms were seen as necessary to guard against the secret police system favored in much of Continental Europe. Unlike on the Continent, officers were also "citizens in uniform," with minimal special powers, and welfare/service roles were incorporated. However, despite the community policing imagery, barriers were established between police officers and the communities they policed: for example, community influence was more restricted than in the United States and police personnel were often recruited from other areas of the country.

Caution is also required before conceptualizing a British model of policing. From the beginning, the police in Ireland was molded differently. The problems of maintaining control in a hostile environment resulted in a paramilitary police force run from London, and formed the blueprint for subsequent colonial forces formed throughout the British Empire. Following partition, the Irish Republic maintained a centralized system, but "civilianized" the police. In the North, the newly formed Royal Ulster Constabulary continued the paramilitary tradition. In the early twenty-first century it is in the process of reform, following the 1999 Patten Report, but the difficulties of radically changing police traditions are evident. Elsewhere in the British Isles, separate autonomous police forces exist on the Isle of Mann, Guernsey, and Jersey, the latter in particular epitomizing a community-based system.

At the other extreme, the police system created in Vladimir Lenin's Soviet Union was more akin to the traditional Continental model, with a paramilitary centralized militia subordinate to the powerful secret police. This model was imposed across the Eastern bloc in the late 1940s, where it became known as the repressive police. When these countries and parts of the Soviet Union gained their independence in the 1980s and 1990s, the new governments were committed to police reform. In this endeavor they variously solicited advice from the United States and Western European neighbors, and attempted, among other things, to sever the link between government and operational policing, reduce the administrative responsibilities of the police, advance community policing, decentralize, and civilianize the police. Undoubtedly changes have occurred, but they have lost momentum, partly due to increased popular concern about crime and safety. Additionally, U.S. influence, epitomized in the funding of an Eastern European police college in Budapest, has emphasized the war against organized crime, and especially the international drug problem, rather than the need to democratize and decentralize the police. The entry of many former Eastern bloc countries into the European Union at the turn of the twenty-first century, and scrutiny of police systems in those under consideration, may however lead to future modifications.

Certainly the European Union has had a significant impact on national arrangements. Trevi, for example, was established in 1975–1976 as an intergovernmental cooperative mechanism between member states that established working parties composed of senior officers from different European police forces to plan joint operations. The Schengen Treaty of 1962, expanded most notably through the 1984 Fontainebleau Declaration, espoused as its basic principle the desirability of freedom of movement within the European Union, but in recognizing that this facilitated the movement of illegal goods and services, also sought to enhance international police cooperation. The United Kingdom has not been a party to Fontainebleau, but in much of Europe the principle of greater cooperation has been accepted, initially through Trevi and later through the Schengen Convention of 1990 and the 1991 Maastricht Treaty. More recently, the European Drugs Unit, created in 1994, developed into a full-scale European Police Office (Eoropol), providing cross-border coordination mainly in relation to drugs, immigration, terrorism, people trafficking, forgery, and vehicle trafficking, and the European Police College (CEPOL) was established in 2001. Ironically, moves to facilitate cooperation have also served to emphasize differences and, on occasions, have led to conflict, a case in point being German and Swedish concern over the more liberal Dutch approach to drug control.

Other changes appear to be more a response to local circumstances than international concerns. For example, local police units have been introduced in France, Italy, and Spain, to supplement centralized systems. Other changes include the removal of a range of noncrime responsibilities from the police in France under the presidency of François Mitterrand. However, while it is tempting to see these as indicative of a convergence across Europe there is little evidence of any consistency here. Rather, it appears that governments have used their autonomy to respond to national issues where they arise. For example, in Germany the significance of the national police has faded as border patrols have become less necessary, and the Dutch system, never excessively centralized, was changed due to controversy over area variations in police costs, and is now structured in a way that is more akin to England and Wales. This suggests that in discussing police systems in Europe there is a need to be mindful of the differences between counties, as well as the caveat that increased cooperation is quite different from harmonization or convergence.


Differences between different European countries are equally evident in terms of alternative ways of dealing with known offenders. While the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw prison replacing capital and corporal punishment as the ultimate sanction, and imprisonment becoming a sentence in its own right rather than prisons being a place of detention prior to trial, fine payment, or deportation, it was viewed very differently in different European countries at various points in time. In England and Wales, efforts were made to reduce the prison population in the interwar period and then briefly during the 1970s and late 1980s, but generally the English system is characterized by expansionism. During the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland the prison population also reached record proportions, although since the Northern Ireland agreement it has fallen dramatically. However, in neither case has the use of imprisonment come close to the situation in the United States.

Elsewhere in Europe, the use of imprisonment as a sanction against political dissent reached its extreme in the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries. If the police were the first arm in maintaining totalitarian regimes, the prison systems provided a second arm. Social and political dissent was met by an extensive and brutal penal system. Traditionally a high proportion of the population was imprisoned, sentences were relatively long, and inmates confined in large, overcrowded institutions characterized by dire living standards and harsh regimes.

As with the police, one of the main priorities of the emerging new democratic governments was to reduce the use of imprisonment. To achieve this, amnesties, conditional release, and squashed convictions had an immediate impact, while long-term changes were attempted by modifying sentencing patterns, decriminalization of some former crimes, and the expansion of community sentences like probation. Nevertheless, the political will to change has been more evident in some countries, such as Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, than in others, including the Baltic States, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Moreover, even in the former more radical countries, policy changes have been challenged by a public increasingly concerned about crime and disorder.

In the postwar period, the most distinctive reductionist example in Europe was the Netherlands, where the rate of imprisonment fell from the 1950s to the early 1990s, a policy commonly attributed to the pragmatic and liberal approach adopted by policy makers who, unlike in the United States and Britain, were not under pressure from a public demanding more punitive sentencing. This low rate was not due to a lower rate of sentencing, but to a high rate of cases being discontinued, combined with use of short sentences. However, Dutch policy changed dramatically in the 1990s, with imprisonment rising and an apparent end to Dutch tolerance. As a result, by 2002, the rate had risen to 100 per 100,000 population, lower than the European average but above that in all Scandinavian countries as well as Belgium, France, and Switzerland, among others. At the other extreme, England and Wales have traditionally had a relatively high rate of imprisonment by Western European standards, although this does not appear to have had any effect on their crimes rates. Nevertheless, imprisonment has become a more popular sanction in Europe in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It thus seems that while rates of imprisonment, in Western Europe at least, are well behind those in the United States, the move is toward an increased use of custody.

Traditionally, probation has been considered the natural alternative to imprisonment. However, although it emerged in the nineteenth century in the United States and Britain as a means for providing community support for offenders, in much of Europe its origins are more recent. In countries with a civil law tradition, suspended sentences, usually without any conditions of supervision, were more common, and probation has been introduced along with a growing array of noncustodial alternatives. Electronic monitoring has also been imported from the United States, and while it is not a common sentencing choice it is now deployed in a range of European countries, including England and Wales, Scotland, the Netherlands and Sweden. However, as in the United States, an expansion in more demanding and punitive community sentences appears to have been at the expense of other noncustodial sentences, rather than as a replacement to prison. There is therefore persuasive evidence that sentencing policies in Europe are becoming increasingly punitive, reflected in both an increased willingness to imprison and an expansion in community punishment. That is not to ignore the expansion of more constructive alternatives such as mediation and restorative justice. Moreover, variations between the nations of Europe in their approach to prison and its alternatives are still considerable.


The structure and role of the police and the operation of the penal system within countries of Europe depend on both crime and disorder and public perceptions of "the crime problem" and on social and political traditions, adjusted as they have been by wars, fought-for independence, and the forging of alliances. However, while criminal justice systems have been subject to extensive change, and convergence can be identified in police operations, the changing nature of probation, and expanding prison populations, there are nonetheless considerable differences. New policies and practices are adopted partly as a result of international pressures and the search for examples of good practice abroad, but they are also the result of internal pressures. In consequence, considerable differences remain in the ways that different countries within Europe perceive and confront their crime problems.

See alsoDeath Penalty; Drugs (Illegal); European Court of Justice; International Law; Police and Policing.


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