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JDI Latin America and Caribbean Unit


Supporting research on crime and citizen security, and the professional development of policing in the LAC region.


Another Approach to Crime Reduction in Colombia

By Alberto Nieto and Herve Borrion, on 5 June 2020

Following concerns about the increasing number of crimes reported in Colombia, President Ivan Duque ordered last year the creation of a plan to reduce crime. In the past weeks, officials from the National Police (NP) have revealed the contours of this strategy that aims to reduce crime by improving the criminal investigation process. But, is it such a good idea? Colombia faces a daunting scenario. New accounts show that 1,136 people were robbed on average per day during the first semester of 2019. Violence is also a significant concern. During 2018, 25 people per every 100,000 inhabitants were killed, situating Colombia as the 9th country with the highest homicide rate in Latin America and the Caribbean. The strategy’s underpinning objective is to increase the effectiveness of NP and the Prosecution Service in dealing with crimes as soon as they are committed. Although not explicit, there is hope that this would produce a general deterrent effect, by sending a message to offenders about the risk involved in committing crime.

Improving part of the criminal justice system might seem like a good idea. However, this is not as straightforward because the criminal justice system is a complex system with multiple agents (e.g., citizens, law enforcement agencies, judges, prosecutors, public defendants, prisons, social workers), multiple functions and processes, as well as forward and feedback loops. In this case, it is questionable whether improving the criminal investigation process is really an effective and efficient way to reduce crime.

With the new plan, we can expect more cases to be pushed to the next stage of the criminal justice system: courts and prisons. The logic would be that a higher number of offenders will be rehabilitated or deterred. In practice, however, those cases are unlikely to be processed effectively, and the sought effect may not materialise. Indeed, there are already more than 36,000 individuals in pretrial detention (33% of prison population), and prisons have an overcrowding rate of 55%, making Colombia the 5th country with the highest occupation level in South America and 50th worldwide.

Considering how congested the criminal justice system is, reducing the number of criminal opportunities would probably be a more promising strategy. Recent studies suggest that the crime drop observed in most developed countries in the West can be attributed to improved security measures used to increase the perceived risks of getting caught, reduce the rewards for the offenders, or increase the effort needed to commit an offence. These means are the tenets of the situational prevention approach to reduce crime.

For law enforcement agencies to take a leading role in the prevention of crimes requires a real shift in strategy, mindset, and incentives. One of the most successful approaches, problem-oriented policing introduced by Herman Goldstein in 1979, puts a premium on an in-depth understanding of the problems which law enforcement agencies need to address. POP, as this strategy is also known, has tried to change the standard, reactive policing model that deals with crime events individually, similar to the one envisioned by the NP’s new plan. This approach focuses on identifying recurrent crime and disorder problems and understanding and tackling the underlying causes to prevent them.

Police forces’ commitment and interest in POP has fluctuated since its introduction, but it is regaining interest. The challenge remains in how well law enforcement agencies define the problems and understanding the social, ecological, and ethical considerations of the interventions intended to reduce crime, as discussed in this article published in the British Journal of Criminology.

The opportunity for countries like Colombia to adopt POP seems to be remote. Delivering process outcomes —i.e., the number of people arrested and sentenced—continues to prevail in how public opinion holds accountable law enforcement agencies, and law enforcement agencies might use these outcomes to regain confidence in people when the number of crime reports increases. The difficulty in quantifying the number of crimes that can be prevented, therefore, reduces the importance of a preventive approach to crime.

There is merit in trying to improve the investigative process, and therefore in NP’s new plan. However, significant crime reduction should not be expected from it, for as long as prevention continues to be a second-order approach and law enforcement agencies solely rely on the criminal justice system to produce general deterrent effects. For this, partnerships between law enforcement agencies and other actors of society will need to be established to address recurrent crime problems. Complex system theory might come in handy to start shaping a new understanding of criminal opportunities and testing alternative strategies to improve security.

Alberto Nieto is a PhD candidate in the Department of Security and Crime Science. His research focuses on the evolution of co-offending networks.

Dr Hervé Borrion is Associate Professor at the Department of Security and Crime Science.

The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of UCL, the Department of Security and Crime Science or the JDI LAC Unit.