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Reviewing The Usefulness Of Official Statistics Criminology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 1984 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Official statistics give information on the number of crimes commit that are collected directly from each police. They claim to provide answers to two questions; the extent of crime, and who commits it. Criminologists have identified the problem of official statistics giving a false picture of the level and type of crime that actually exists. As a result, other types of information are turned to including victim surveys, longitudinal research and self-report studies. This essay will begin by exploring the uses of official statistics then go on to explore the problems with the data. The other types of data available will then be outlined and the usefulness of them will be evaluated.

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Offical statistics are figures that have been collected by the police and are published by the Home Office annually and contain data on crimes known to by the police. Official statistics have the use of showing trends in crime that can easily be compared over time. For example, the Office for National Statistics (2008) published a report saying “In England and Wales, 4,060 Anti-social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) were issued in 2005, over 18 per cent more than the previous year”. They also clearly show which social group is more likely to commit certain types of crime. This could be the person’s age, ethnicity, social class. They allow police to know where their priorities should be and aid governments in setting their policies on crime. To a criminologists point of view, they are a free, secondary source of data that are going to be useful even if it is just to identify how much of a ‘dark-figure’ there is.

The term ‘Dark-figure’ is ultimately the entire problem with using official statistics to study crime. The dark figure is defined as the amount of crime which is unreported or unknown about. The total amount of crime is made up of those that are known of and recorded, and the dark figure of crime (Online Dictionary Of The Social Sciences 2008). The dark figure is said to exist due to the social construction of crime. This is the idea that what is seen as criminal behaviour to one person may not be to another. The result there are crimes that the public to do not report to the police, and there are crimes that the police to not record. These make up a large number of crimes that are not recorded by the police, and make up the dark figure.

Unreported crimes occur for a range of reasons, and are a massive contributor to the dark figure, which removes usefulness from official statistics. The police rely on the public to inform them about crime, they do not generally find out about crimes themselves. As Maguire et. Al (2002:322) said; “whether people perceive a particular action or event as crime, let alone whether they report it as such to anyone else…can vary according to their own knowledge, awareness, or feelings about crime, which in turn may be influenced by the general public ‘mood’ or the preoccupations of politicians and the media”. Crimes will only generally go reported where there is a victim, therefore there is a large number of ‘victimless’ crimes which the police are not getting told about. Typical crimes of this nature included traffic offences and violations of laws regarding public decency such as public drunkenness. These crimes will all contribute to the dark figure. Crimes may not be reported to the police if it is not perceived to be serious. The victim may regard the offence as trivial and believe that reporting it to the police is more effort than it is worth.

A major source of unreported crime comes from ‘white-collar crimes’. Edwin Sutherland came up with the concept in 1945 which, at the time, was a very different idea of crime from anything before (Coleman and Moyniham 1996:9). Sutherland (1940 cited in Coleman and Moyniham 1996:9) defined the concept as ‘crimes committed by persons of respectability and high social status in the course of their occupations’. Crimes of this nature could include bribery and corruption in business and politics, the breaking of trade regulations and breaking food and drug laws. Some crimes may be committed by organizations or corporations themselves, rather than an individual, and are often known as corporate crimes. Sutherland (1940 cited in Coleman and Moyniham 1996:9) explains how these types of crimes are very widespread, yet a measure of them doesn’t appear in police records. Prosecutions are unlikely due to the apparent trivial nature of the crime, and often it is difficult to get sufficient evidence. Generally, other procedures are used to deal with these criminals, such as civil actions or those of special agencies. Firms are unlikely to prosecute employees over internal crime to the company such as stealing property, as they believe the result will be their company looking bad. He goes on to explain that white-collar criminals are the most damaging of all due to the results. These crimes will therefore make up a large proportion of all crimes committed, yet the majority of them are not included in official statistics, so contributing to making them useful to study.

Another major contributor to official statistics not giving a true picture on crime is crimes that go unrecorded by the police. Simmons and Dodd (2003) point out that the police have a legal obligation to record all crime, however over 30% of all crimes reported to the police in 2002/3 were not recorded. Cases where crimes aren’t recorded include cases where the crime is seen by the police as being trivial and the offence minor. The police may see that the time taken to fill in the paper work on a minor crime or one where catching the victim is unlikely is simply a waste of time. A process known as ‘cuffing’ is where police ‘downgrade’ crimes in order to meet Home Office efficiency targets. They may even make a crime disappear all together so it does not show up in statistics, for example theft can be downgraded to ‘lost property’, which is not a crime. This may be done in cases where police pay is partially determined by clean-up rates, so it is in their interest to have a low number of crimes recorded. An example of this is in a recent news article where Alan Travis (2008) said, “the Home Office disclosed that up to 17 police forces have been under-recording some types of the most serious violent crime.”

There is further dispute in the usefulness of official statistics from the problem that certain crimes appear more frequently than others. A key cause of this is media amplification. This is where certain crimes are concentrated on by the media and made out to be big problems (often when they are not), known as moral panics. The result is that the police will concentrate more of their time in areas where these people are. This could mean that the tendency of the police to concentrate in low income areas may mean higher arrests of the working class, which may distort the figures. It could also be argued that police resources are devoted to patrolling public places, which is where most young males spend their social life, so leading to higher arrest rates amongst them and distortion to the statistics.

As a response to the problems of the data in official statistics, a number of alternative ways are also used to study crime. The most popular alternative if the British Crime Survey, which is a victimization study. ‘The British Crime Survey’ was first conducted in 1981 and has become an annual event since 2000. The Home Office carries out the victim study so they don’t have to simply rely on using police statistics to study crime, and see it as being more reliable than police statistics for certain types of crime. The survey itself involves asking a sample of 47,000 adults if they have been the victim of crime in the previous year. It also asks individuals if they reported the crime, and whether the police ultimately recorded it. Data from the British Crime Survey may reveal that there are either more or less offences in particular categories, implying that an offence is being either under reported or that it is being reported accurately. All in all then, the BCS data seems to indicate that official statistics on crime do not provide a valid picture of the extent of crime, and overall they may underestimate the trend. However, we cannot say that the British Crime Survey is giving a true picture, as there are also many limitations with the survey. Maguire (2002) explains how there are categories of crime that are not included in the British Crime Survey that are included in police statistics. This could include cases where there is a commercial or corporate victim (such as shop-lifting), or if it is a victimless crime. He also noted that sexual offences have been reported so rarely that it is not possible to put forward reliable statistics. Another major flaw with the survey is that it excludes offences against victims under sixteen years old. He goes on to explain that national surveys are therefore much less useful at obtaining information about certain incidents of crime than others. He makes it clear that “the BCS, therefore, it cannot be too heavily stressed, provides an alternative, rather than a directly comparable, overall picture of crime to that offered by police statistics: it is ‘fuller’ than the latter in some respects, but ‘narrower’ in others.” (Maguire 2002).

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Another form of information on crime is Self-report studies. These are where questionnaires or interviews are conducted in confidence to collect information about individuals, and ask them to admit to the number of crimes they have committed, including those which they were not caught. The data can then be compared with official conviction rates to determine which offences are most likely to be committed. Maguire (2002) concluded that:

On the one hand, these suggest that crime is committed by a much larger proportion of the population than is officially held responsible for it. On the other hand, survey respondents who have previously been in trouble with the law tend to admit to more serious and more frequent offending behaviour than people who have never been convicted

The studies are useful as people generally do not fear getting in trouble for admitting to the offences, so a more valid picture of the number and extent of crime is given.

Self-report studies do however come with fundamental problems. Unreliable answers are believed to be obtained as; respondents may exaggerate when answering questions, respondents may be embarrassed so either not admit to a crime or give an unreliable account of it, respondents may have forgotten the full details of a crime they committed. The majority of self-reported studies survey are conducted on samples of school and college students, and are rarely used on adults. This therefore doesn’t make them a good technique in studying the general level of crime in society. The surveys are also likely to undercover minor and trivial crimes, but not find out about the major and less common more serious crimes. For this reason, the self-report study cannot be said to be an effective way of investigating crime.

Overall, it appears that there is not single method effective in studying crime, and while the official statistics do contain the ‘dark-figure’, they do provide a very useful starting point. When used in combination with the British Crime Survey, the inaccuracy from the ‘dark figure’ becomes less problematic, and a truer picture of crime is given. Neither is an effective source of information on its own, and only give part of the picture.


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