Referring to at least two sources of data, critically discuss how crime is measured in Britain and explain why the statistics do not provide us with a full picture of how much crime there actually is. If one were to ask how much crime there is in Britain, the judgement could differ depending on whom you were asking or their judgement on what they actually class as criminal behaviour. Society is ambivalent towards crime, which skews the analysis over the level of criminal activity in Britain.
Maguire describes the area of crime numbers or trends as one of ‘shifting sands’ (Maguire 2002, p,322) in terms of the developments and creations in criminological process and thought which happens day to day. He also argues that finding the true level of crime bears very little significance in the study of criminology, but what bears greater significance is the critical approach by which the data is analysed.
Nevertheless, there are official police-generated crime statistics in Britain, made up of reported and recorded crimes, which still, to this day impact on how politicians and journalists view the government’s effectiveness in dealing with crime. The Official Crime Statistics in England are published annually and allow various sectors of society such as the media, politicians and the general public to assess the extent and the trends in criminal activity.
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These published tables of national crime statistics named ‘Criminal Statistics, England and Wales’ were first compiled in 1857 and were based on annual returns from the courts and the police which were then aggregated by government statisticians (Maguire 2002). Crimes recorded in police statistics are defined by the ‘Notifiable Offence List’ (ONS: Data sources – further information). This follows technological advances in recent times, which have grown the net number of police-recorded crimes, such as ‘common assaults’. Many minor crimes have been upgraded and are now regarded as ‘notifiable offences’ (Maguire 2002).
However, there are significant shortcomings with the police-generated crime statistics, such as the fact that certain crimes are not included in this list, referred to by the ONS as ‘non-notifiable’ crimes. These crimes often include anti-social behaviour or minor crimes such as drunkenness, littering or begging. Whilst there is criminal activity occurring in Britain which does not come to police notice, and therefore is not recorded (discussed in detail later in this paper), there are crimes which the police are aware of, but use a great deal of discretion as to whether or not these crimes are recorded (Maguire 2002).
The public are responsible for notifying around eighty per cent of recorded crimes to the police (McCabe and Sutcliffe 1978), however, the latter have the responsibility for deciding which crimes to deal with and which to ignore. Often they can regard some crimes as too trivial or they dispute the legitimacy of others, which can lead to unreliable data. Moore, Aiken and Chapman (2000) see the police as filters, only recording some of the crimes reported to them. Furthermore, there are certain types of crime that are excluded totally from these statistics, seriously altering the extent to which the data can be classed as comprehensive.
The term ‘notifiable’ offence essentially refers to one, which can be tried by the Crown Court. This leaves ‘summary offences’ (those which can only be tried in a Magistrate’s Court) excluded from the data (Maguire 2002). In addition to this, crimes which are not regarded as the responsibility of the Home Office, such as those recorded by the British Transport Police, Ministry of Defence Police, and UK Atomic Energy Authority Police (who between them record some 80,000 notifiable offences annually) (Kershaw et al . 2001, p91) are also excluded from ‘official crime figures. ’
A further limitation with police recorded crime data is caused by the unpredictable fluctuations with the remaining 20 per cent of crimes which the police themselves discover, either through observation, patrols or through confessions by those arrested. This could be due to increased arrests from planned operations targeted against a certain type of crime. For example, following the London riots in 2011, many people were arrested due to the police focusing their resource and effort on finding the offenders. Similarly, at pop festivals many drug users have been found and arrested.
On the other hand, numbers of recorded crimes may fall if police interest in a particular type of crime is withdrawn. This could be for a number of reasons such as in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when the legalisation of homosexuality was imminent. At this time the police regularly ignored ‘indecency between males’ which resulted in a fall of recorded offences to half the level previously regarded as normal (Walker 1971). In criminology, the term ‘the dark figure of crime’ is often used to refer to the crimes that are not reported and therefore not recorded in official statistics.
In theory, the ‘dark figure’ consists of offences brought to the justice system but not registered in judicial sources (perhaps because they were settled outside of the court), undiscovered offences or offences where the victim has chosen not to reveal details (Johnson and Monkkonen 1996). This loophole seriously alters the accuracy of the criminal justice disciplinary system. The underlying reasoning for certain crimes not being reported are based on people’s own judgement of the seriousness of the crime, police power, police diplomacy or simply because people see it as an inconvenience.
It could be argued that if people don’t believe the reporting of their crime to be serious enough, then the justice system is not as accessible and transparent as it should be. This argument widens the issue of the dark figure of crime from a statistical one to an underlying and historical error creating much scope for debate. The police system is in place for the safety of citizens, but if citizens don’t feel the use of the justice system is necessary in certain instances, then what is the point in the justice system being in place for certain crimes?
Furthermore, this hinders the reliability of criminologists’ theories where a legalistic stance is taken in the definition of crime. A secondary measure of crime in Britain, regarded by Maguire as a “directly comparable rival to the police-generated crime statistics” (Maguire 2002) is the British Crime Survey (BCS), now named the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) to reflect its geographical coverage. This measure attempts to combat the inaccuracy of the ‘dark figure of crime’ referred to above.
The CSEW was first conducted in 1892 and is an annual survey rather than a list of statistics. When the survey was first conducted, there were 11 million crimes reported; however, official statistics recorded by the police only counted less than three million (Hough and Mayhew 1983)– this gap is first hand evidence of the ‘dark figure of crime. ’ Forty six thousand households (ONS: Data sources – further information) were questioned in the year ending June 2012, with the CSEW focusing more on qualitative data rather than the quantitative data used in official statistics.
The CSEW picks up on crime that doesn’t surface in official statistics, with households asked about their own personal experiences of crime in the past twelve months as well as taking into account any non-response bias. The measure has a consistent methodology and the results are not skewed by a percentage of the population failing to report their crime. The measure suggests the true level of crime to be twice the official crime rate due to the proportion of people who admit to being victims or offenders of crime in a face-to-face interview, but do not report this to the police.
Although the CSEW does now include a section on domestic violence, an area previously missed off the national figures, (particularly when victims are scared of their offenders) the real rate of crime is still substantially under-estimated. Corporate or workplace crime, homicide, drug possession or crimes against people under the age of 16 are still not included in the CSEW figures. In today’s society, this is a major drawback to the CSEW as corporate crime is growing in our increasingly globalised economy whilst crimes against children appear to be remaining constant with no breakthrough on prevention.
In 2011, of the police recorded crime statistics on sexual abuse against children, it was found that 1 in 10 children (9. 4%) aged between eleven and seventeen years old had experienced sexual abuse (NSPCC 31/12/12). Some progress appears to have been made in the area of corporate crime following a recommendation contained in the National Statisticians’ Review of Crime Statistics (National Statistician, 2011 18/12/12) – there is now a survey of commercial victimisation which aims to provide statistics on corporate crime in the economy over the next three years and is planned to be incorporated into future quarterly releases in 2013.
However, other drawbacks associated with the CSEW include the time lag on information collection – the survey records data from people’s experience 12 months prior. This is in comparison to police recorded crime in which the data is clearly more immediate. Furthermore, the CSEW is vulnerable to sampling errors and variation in results. One person may feel comfortable enough to admit criminal activity to one interviewer, but not to another. Therefore the reliability of the data can be challenged.
When comparing both the CSEW and police recorded crime in official statistics the most recent data from the Office of National Statistics can be analysed. The CSEW, based on interviews in the year ending June 2012, reveals a “statistically significant decrease of 6 per cent in the overall level of CSEW crime compared with the previous year’s survey (ONS: Overall level of crime 18/12/12). ” Similarly, “the overall level of notifiable crime recorded by the police decreased by 6 per cent in the year ending June 2012, compared with the previous year (ONS: Overall level of crime 18/12/12). Nevertheless, whilst the CSEW estimates just over 9. 1 million incidents of crime for the year ending June 2012, the official figures only record 3. 9 million offences. This is heavily based on the ‘dark figure of crime’ – that proportion of crime in Britain which goes unnoticed by the police. In 2002, the CSEW (then named BCS) calculated that “40 per cent of crimes known to victims and reported to the police do not end up in official statistics (Kershaw et al 2001, p992). It is evident that, whilst the CSEW does reveal a higher level of criminal activity in Britain, a majority of the crimes can regarded as not serious enough to be included in official statistics, and therefore should not alarm the population. Although the legalistic position attempts to simplify the scale of debate surrounding what crime actually is, stating ‘the most precise and least ambiguous definition of crime is that which defines it as behaviour which is prohibited by the criminal code’ Coleman (2000), this however creates a question on what is actually being regarded as illegal behaviour and ‘prohibited by the criminal code’.
Analysing the methods used in Britain to measure crime establishes the fact that criminal statistics are a social construction, based not on a set of legal definitions and laws, which can be transferred between social groups and times, but on a product of social processes. The process of attrition between an act, regarded as criminal, to the same act being punished contains a number of stages that blur the answer to the question ‘How much crime is there in Britain? It appears that the term ‘official crime figures’ is somewhat paradoxical in the fact that if society is basing its justified opinion on these ‘official’ figures, then it must take into account several exclusions in order to get a more comprehensive perspective on what the data is actually showing. Although the figures summarise the most serious crimes in Britain they do not show the total picture.
In this day and age more emphasis needs to be placed on the responsibility of the criminal justice system and the link back to the definition of criminals in the first place. In particular, if crime is viewed from a labelling perspective, then the role that the legal system plays in the creation of crime is of great significance when measuring the true level of criminal activity in Britain.
In addition, consideration needs to be given to future prevention of crime and the measurement of how effective society is at removing or reducing certain categories of crime. In closing, I would argue that when answering the question ‘how much crime is there in Britain? ’ it would be naive to base any argument upon these official crime figures as they are simply ‘indices of organisational processes’ Kitsuse and Cicourel (1963).
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