The fear of crime refers to the fear of being a victim of crime as opposed to the actual probability of being a victim of crime. The fear of crime, along with fear of the streets and the fear of youth, is said to have been in Western culture for "time immemorial". While fear of crime can be differentiated into public feelings, thoughts and behaviors about the personal risk of criminal victimization, distinctions can also be made between the tendency to see situations as fearful, the actual experience while in those situations, and broader expressions about the cultural and social significance of crime and symbols of crime in people's neighborhoods and in their daily, symbolic lives.
Importantly, feelings, thoughts and behaviors can have a number of functional and dysfunctional effects on individual and group life, depending on actual risk and people's subjective approaches to danger. On a negative side, they can erode public health and psychological well-being; they can alter routine activities and habits; they can contribute to some places turning into 'no-go' areas via a withdrawal from community; and they can drain community cohesion, trust and neighborhood stability. Some degree of emotional response can be healthy: psychologists have long highlighted the fact that some degree of worry can be a problem-solving activity, motivating care and precaution, underlining the distinction between low-level anxieties that motivate caution and counter-productive worries that damage well-being.
Factors influencing the fear of crime include the psychology of risk perception, circulating representations of the risk of victimization (chiefly via interpersonal communication and the mass media), public perceptions of neighborhood stability and breakdown, the influence of neighbourhood context, and broader factors where anxieties about crime express anxieties about the pace and direction of social change. There are also some wider cultural influences. For example, some have argued that modern times have left people especially sensitive to issues of safety and insecurity.
Fear of crime has had a profound impact on the U.S. incarceration rate, having inspired the "tough on crime" policies of the 1980s that led to Draconian sentences being widespread. Crime rates started decreasing before the new sentencing policies were implemented. Also significant is how despite the decrease in crime, media coverage of crime increased by 600% between 1998 and 2008. The media's "culture of fear" has largely been dominated by frequent stories of crime and punishment.