This module is a resource for lecturers


Definition of Crime Prevention and Terminology


A common challenge when discussing ‘crime prevention’ is identifying exactly what is captured by the term. Defining crime prevention is difficult because, “in practice, the term ‘prevention’ seems to be applied confusingly to a wide array of contradictory activities” (Brantingham and Faust, 1976, p. 284). Gilling (1997, p. xi) suggests that “crime prevention is a difficult beast to tame” and Homel observes that:

When one examines what could be described as ‘crime prevention’ in most developed countries one finds a bewildering array of activities and programs. Exactly how bewildering the analysis depends on where one draws the line in terms of what counts as ‘crime prevention’ and what does not (2007, p. 267).

A common definition used in the literature is:

crime prevention is defined as the total of all private initiatives and state policies, other than the enforcement of criminal law, aimed at the reduction of damage caused by acts defined as criminal by the state (van Dijk and de Waard, 1991, p. 483).

Over time, this definition was criticized for what it excludes – the enforcement of criminal law. The important role of police, courts and correctional agencies is now routinely incorporated into definitions of crime prevention, such as the one used by the United Nations:

strategies and measures that seek to reduce the risk of crimes occurring, and their potential harmful effects on individuals and society, including fear of crime, by intervening to influence their multiple causes.

This definition was adopted by the United Nations in the Basic Principles on the Use of Restorative Justice Programmes in Criminal Matters (Economic and Social Council resolution 2002/13). It is also reproduced on page nine of the Handbook on the crime prevention guidelines – Making them work, (UNODC, 2010).  

A range of different terms are used, often interchangeably, in the crime prevention literature. It is useful to have a basic understanding of the different terms and why prominent theorists prefer them.

Chainey and Ratcliffe (2005) distinguish between the terms ‘community safety’, ‘crime control’, ‘crime reduction’, and ‘crime prevention’. Definitions adapted from their work are included in the Key Terms section below. Other terms like ‘security’, ‘policing’, ‘citizen security’, and ‘urban safety’ are also utilized in discussions relevant to crime prevention and can reflect regional preferences. This further complicates what activities, technologies, programmes and techniques can rightfully be included under the banner of crime prevention.

Key Terms

Community Safety - “Community safety is realized through an integrated consideration of diverse harms to the public, and ‘refers to the likely absence of harms from all sources, not just from human acts classifiable as crimes’ (Wiles and Pease, 2000). Community safety also provides a strategic viewpoint on community harms by focusing attention towards the development of programmes that set targets to manage risks and aims to maximise public safety” (Chainey and Ratcliffe, 2005, p. 17-18).

Crime Prevention - Crime prevention involves any activity by an individual or group, public or private, which attempts to eliminate crime prior to it occurring or before any additional activity results. By drawing on the public health model, some theorists have distinguished between primary crime prevention (universal), secondary crime prevention (at-risk) and tertiary crime prevention (known offenders).

Crime Reduction - “Crime reduction is concerned with diminishing the number of criminal events and the consequences of crime. Crime reduction is applied within the bandwidth of an available resource input (e.g. financial input) and needs to be considered as an action that brings net benefits after considering the impact of displacement and diffusion of benefits, fear of crime and the impact of other programmes that may have contributed to any specific crime reduction activity. Crime reduction promotes a spirit of optimism that actions towards a problem will reduce crime or reduce the seriousness of criminal events … it aims to intervene directly in the events and their causes” (Chainey and Ratcliffe, 2005, p. 19).

Crime Control - “Crime control considers that crime has already happened and that some management of these criminal activities is required to ensure that it does not spiral out of control. It points to the need for maintenance of a problem, one where crime is kept to a tolerable level, and not to a situation where crime can be prevented” (Chainey and Ratcliffe, 2005, p. 18-19).