With 9% of the world’s population and 33% of its homicides, Latin America and the Caribbean suffers from far too much violence. But government responses, heavily focused on punitive practices like mass incarceration, have fallen short. While incarceration has increased by 76% over the last decade, the region as a whole still has more than twice the homicide rate as the world average and Central America’s rate stands at three times what it was 30 years ago.
Part of the problem lies in public preferences that favor quick fixes over more effective long-term policies. The IDB recently published a study and accompanying dataset, based on three different public opinion surveys, that illuminates citizen attitudes towards crime and policies to fight it. The hope is that understanding those preferences and their determinants can help to better address the problem and make crime fighting more effective.
The Problem of Trust and Impatience
One thing that stands out in the surveys is low trust in institutions and the ability of public officials to wisely spend tax money for long-term socially beneficial policies. This lack of trust conspires against the implementation of effective solutions. People who mistrust the police—and there are many—are less likely to support boosting taxes to increase police budgets. They doubt that greater resources for training and equipment will improve crime-fighting abilities. Indeed, more than 30% of Latin Americans would rather put money towards defending themselves than rely on the police. Distrust in politicians also takes its toll. It makes it difficult to craft crime-fighting strategies with the right balance of prevention and evidence-based deterrence policies.
Citizens, meanwhile, are impatient. They want quick fixes that promise to deliver substantial and immediate drops in crime. This preference for harsher penalties, or “mano dura,” has fed an incarceration rate twice that of the European Union at enormous fiscal expense. Prisons have become recruiting grounds for organized crime. Politicians, with their eye on the electoral calendar, are often too happy to oblige with the desire for toughness. They promote punitive policies in bad times that remain in place for far too long, even as the persistently high death toll reveals the policies’ shortcomings.
Communication Failures in the Effort to Combat Crime
Information strategies could be better. Little effort has been made, for example, to inform citizens about the benefits of hotspot policing, the pin-point focusing of police resources on small crime-ridden areas. As a result, the cost-effective and highly efficient strategy, used widely in other countries, does not have much support in the region. About half of the people in the region don’t want hotspot policing, preferring instead an equal distributing of police forces, even when crime is concentrated in a few places.
Demographics, education, and life experience play into these dynamics. Older people, men, those with more education and the nonwhite generally oppose harsher punishment and opt instead to give more resources to the police. Crime victims and those who feel unsafe in their neighborhoods are more inclined towards punitive policies and subsidies for private security so that citizens can defend themselves.
The panorama is difficult. But a way to move forward in a more positive direction is to understand these determinants of attitudes and the biases themselves. With that understanding, governments can better educate their people about effective crime strategies and the fiscal costs of different approaches.
Absolutely crucial to restoring faith in good government and good policing is to start implementing evidence-based crime-fighting policies that deliver real results. Increasing prevention, improving police training and working conditions, reducing corruption, and engaging communities in the crafting of solutions can make a big difference. Taking these steps would reinforce the idea that public servants are committed to beneficial public policies that make the most of tax dollars.
Better Information to Change Attitudes
Latin America and the Caribbean, though battered by crime and hemorrhaging 4% of its GDP per year due to criminality’s effects, continues to pursue short-sighted, short-term crime-fighting solutions. Today almost 13% of the world’s detainees are held in penal institutions in the region. But even as prisons fill up at enormous fiscal cost, crime rates remain stubbornly high. We hope that our study, by illuminating these problems and the public attitudes that help perpetuate them, can provoke a reconsideration in both the societal and public policy spheres, unleash new strategies, and begin to change the picture.
[Editorial note: This study was made possible through financial support from the Innovation in Citizen Services Division of the IDB’s Institutions for Development Sector.]