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Amazing drop in crime rate

ENTIRE INDUSTRIES are disappearing before our eyes. Blacksmiths vanished in 1890. Makers of vinyl records went bust in 1990.

Pop singers who could write actual tunes vanished in 1976.

And now another group is facing extinction: robbers.

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The number of common crimes in cities is falling fast, according to a study of 30 countries by Jan van Dijk of Holland’s Tilburg University and his colleagues. Levels of crime are lowest in Hong Kong/China, Japan and Spain, he discovered.

The news was shared by a worried reader whose area of expertise is criminal law. "Particularly hard-hit is the UK, which used to be proud of its crime tradition, with a host of celebrity thieves from Charlie Peace to the Great Train Robbers," he said.

A huge drop in the cost of DVD players from Asia has been identified as the main cause of growing unemployment among British burglars, according to research published last week. Home break-ins in the UK have fallen by more than 50 per cent in the past 10 years.

Unlike other disappearing groups, such as makers of horseshoes and readers of broadsheet newspapers, career robbers get little sympathy and have almost no chance of getting government grants to keep their skills alive.

Will taxpayers finance the last remaining burglar to do his stuff in a museum somewhere?

"Probably not," said our lawyer source. "Burglary lacks the charm of other age-old traditional activities, such as pottery, lace-making and official corruption."

Experts reckon the few remaining thieves are looking for salvation to Apple Inc, which makes small cool things. "It is these expensive personal items which are the most attractive to thieves today as they still retain value and can therefore be sold on," criminology lecturer James Treadwell told Reuters. No doubt Apple boss Steve Jobs is thrilled at this show of support.

I once interviewed a burglar who had written a book about his former life of crime. "I wish I was back in my old profession," he lamented. "The publishing business is full of crooks." I told him: "True, but in private industry we traditionally don’t say ‘crooks’, we say ‘businessmen’. It means the same thing."

The most interesting comment came from a Dutch reader. Several European countries now have an activity called Locksports, he said. Contestants have to pick locks, break through sealed doors, open safes and so on. Locksport contestants have to pledge never to use their skills for anti-social purposes. "It keeps them busy and out of trouble," he said. "And they’re useful to know if you lock yourself out of your home."

One reader asked an intriguing question: will the fall in the number of criminal acts lead to humanity achieving crime-free societies? I doubt it. Given the mysterious disappearance of cookies and other sweet treats in my house, I can’t even achieve a crime-free society in my own kitchen.

But going back to housebreaking, the last time I had to call a locksmith to get me into my own home, he charged US$80 for a job which took him two minutes. "That’s robbery," I said. "That’s business," he replied. I told you.

THIS WEEK we are going to discuss various aspects of crime and punishment. Tomorrow: Is a crime-free society possible? Hear about the small place with 4.2 million surveillance cameras.

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