Defining and Measuring Crime
Defining and Measuring Crime
A crime is an act that when committed is in violation of the law and often punished by a court. However, it can be difficult to say what is a crime for various reasons. In the UK the age of criminal responsibility is 10. This was not always the case having been raised from the age of 8. This means that now a 9-year-olds committing an act in the past would no longer be committing a crime. The circumstances are also important for a crime to take place as person, in general, must have intent to commit the act. The same behaviour at different circumstances may or may not be considered a criminal act.
The definition of a crime always varies between cultures, different cultures will have different laws. In the UK polygamy is illegal but it is not in others. In 2014 arranged marriages were made illegal in the UK, again this is not true for all cultures.
Over time our understanding and definition of law also changes. In 2004 it outlawed to slap your own child as a method of disciplining them. Until 1967 homosexuality was also considered a crime. This makes it difficult to compare crimes and criminal statistics as what was considered a crime may no longer be and vice versa.
Ways to Measure Crime
One way of measuring crime is by using official statistics, ran by the Office of National Statistics. This information is recorded by each police forces around the country and published by the home office. It can provide us with a “snapshot” of the level of crimes and comparisons of areas. We can also compare trends, see a decline, or increase and allocate resources form these.
Some argue that the use of these statistics in unreliable and they can significantly underestimate the extent of true crime. There is an argument that a large figure of up to 75% of crimes are not reported or recorded by the police for various reasons such as intimidation, lack of trust in the system or policies and procedures of recording the data etc…
An example of this is that Nottinghamshire Constabulary were more likely to report for a. theft under the value of £10 which saw a spike in their data for thefts. Therefore, with each policing force having different priorities we could see a distortion in national data. With laws ever changing it is also hard to make a fair comparison and again distorting data.
Another method is to collect information from the offenders themselves via a survey/ The Offending, Crime and Justice Survey gathers data from volunteer offenders. They can provide data on age, gender, ethnicity, location of offense, repeat behaviours etc… Again, we can then look at trends in this data and allocate resources, support and intervention as necessary.
Surveys help us get a first-hand account of what we are investigating. Although anonymous, social desirability bias may play a huge part here with offenders not wanting to admit more serious crimes or over exaggerating their criminal history. These surveys are also said to target specific crimes so may underrepresented certain crimes such as what some would consider a “middle-calls” crime like fraud.
As well as survey the offenders we can also gather information for the victims. The Crime Survey for England and Wales will ask from around 50000 randomly selected households to discuss their experiences relating to crime. In 2009 they also introduced a sperate survey focussing on young offenders aged 10-15 years old.
Victim surveys are said to be a valuable resource to counteract the unreported crimes suggested in the official statistics. In 2006/7 the official statistics said there was a 2% drop in crime whereas the victim survey had a 3% increase so this aids to the reflection of police resources and public perception of our justice system.
However, victims may not remember the exact time when a crime was committed so may record it as more recent and distort that year’s figures. We would also have to be mindful of social desirability bias and the participants perception of the justice systems as this may influence their responses. We should also consider the duty of care and ethics we have for victims in asking for them to recount a likely traumatic event.
Each method of collecting crime statistics has its advantages and disadvantages. However, when we use a combination of all 3, a multidisciplinary approach, we can increase the reliability and validity of the findings and act accordingly.
Although each data source is collected independently, we must bear in mind of any potential political interest in the data. This will help us question the motives behind the collection of the data, how it is represented and how it is used or justified.