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How far do recorded crime rates show how much crime occurs in society?

Asked by chimchim1981 | Sep 23, 2008 | A Level > Sociology > Coursework
chimchim1981 asks:

How far do recorded crime rates show how much crime occurs in society? I have been asked to write a 750 word essay on the above question would love some pointers, thank you

etutor answers:

Official crime statistics are collected by the government, and are made up of police recorded crime figures, together with data collected from a sample of households by the British Crime Survey (BCS). This data is used by government and sociological theorists to analyse crime trends, the perpetrators of crime and the impact of crime on society. The Home Office acknowledges the limitations of the validity of the data, though the strongest criticism of the reliability and validity of the data has come from sociologists. Critics highlight the failure of the statistics to recognise the full extent of the ‘dark figure’ of crime, which is crime that goes unreported and unrecorded. This calls into question the usefulness of the data as a reliable source of crime information.

In the UK, crime statistics have been collected and recorded since 1876 and have allowed for comparisons of crime to be made over time. Maguire (1997) shows how crime rates increased dramatically from the 1960s onwards, the time when the British Crime Survey was introduced and its data incorporated into the official statistics. Prior to this the statistics were dependent on crimes that were reported to the police, subsequent arrests and prosecutions. The British Crime Survey was sent out to a random sample of the population and asked respondents for their experiences of crime over the previous year. The results highlighted a discrepancy between the official statistics and people’s experiences of crime, showing there was a high level of unrecorded crime. Since then the data from the British Crime Survey has been used in conjunction with the official statistics. It can therefore be argued that crime rates increased from this time because of a more accurate picture of crime being presented.

The benefit of the British Crime Survey is that it highlights which crimes go unreported and for what reasons. Simmons et al (2002) found that only 42% of crime was reported to the police; however the rate of reporting varied depending on the type of crime. 94% of vehicle thefts were reported, and 45% of robberies, but only 33% of vandalism and 25% of common assault. Many reasons for not reporting crime were given, the most common being the belief that the offence was too trivial and the police would fail to do anything about it. Where theft is involved it could be argued that public response to reporting is directly attributable to a claim on an insurance policy, and therefore people see a personal benefit to reporting crime. However, as Croall (1998) points out, even though the British Crime Survey has gone some way to estimate how many crimes go unrecorded, its findings are also still not entirely reliable. For instance, as the survey is restricted to households, it doesn’t collect data on ‘victimless’ crimes, such as ‘white-collar’ or corporate crime. Slapper & Tombs (1999) see white collar crime as crimes by the individual against a corporation to further their own interests, and corporate crime as crime by members of the corporation for the corporation's own benefit. Either way offences by adults of a high social status are less likely to appear in the official statistics, altering the outcome of the perpetrator stereotype. Certainly these types of crimes are rarely prosecuted. Perhaps the most widely known example of a corporate crime is that of the thalidomide affair in the 1960s, which caused personal injury to the unborn child of pregnant women who took the drug. No individual from the drug company was prosecuted, even though it had been found that in clinical trials this drug had produced adverse reactions. Snider (1993) claims that many of the most serious crimes committed are corporate crimes, and that the cost of corporate crime in terms of money and loss of life far exceeds that of street crime. Such Marxist theory certainly highlights class inequality when discussing crime statistics. As Gordon (1976) points out, selective law enforcement means that the ruling classes are rarely arrested and prosecuted.

Marxist views on crime, however, have been criticised. Left realists argue that they place too great an emphasis on corporate crime and largely ignore offences such as burglary and violent crimes. Young (1993) argues that there has been a considerable increase in street crime since 1945, and that the rise is so great that changes in the reporting and recording of crime since the 1940s cannot account for all the increase. To strengthen this claim, left realists appeal to another type of victimisation study, the local crime survey, the most famous of which was the Islington Crime Survey. These surveys are much more detailed than the British Crime Survey and focus on a particular area of the UK. Critics, however, argue that due to the local nature of the survey, information gleaned from them may not be representative of the whole country. What the Islington Crime Survey (1986 and 1995) did show was that domestic violence was greatly underreported in the British Crime Survey and the crime statistics. Many women choose not to report domestic violence, and until fairly recently these offences were ignored by the criminal justice system. Similarly, incidences of rape are underestimated in the statistics. According to the Guardian (2002), each year the statistics show that approximately 23,500 rapes and sexual assaults are reported to the police, yet a Home Office study (2002) estimated that this figure was closer to between 118,000 and 295,000. Painter (1991) found that the commonest form of rape was marital rape, and this act was only criminalised in the UK in 1991. According to Dobash and Dobash (1992) many incidences of domestic violence were not taken seriously either by the police or by the judicial system. The overall effect therefore is that crime statistics for sexual and domestic violence are greatly underestimated.

The issue of police input into the type of crimes that are recorded has an impact on the crime statistics. As it is only recorded crime that enters the official statistics, according to Walker (1983), police discretion plays a large part in whether a crime is recorded and under which classification it is recorded. For example, if theft from a person or robbery were classed as burglary, the data would show higher incidences of the wrong crime. Changes in police politics and practices can also affect the statistics. Taylor (1998) argues that crime statistics rose between 1914 and 1960 because senior police officers recorded crimes differently in order to increase funding. Conversely, crime rates then dropped in the 1990s when clear up rates and performance targets were introduced to reduce crime rates. Yet, the effects of police targeting will also alter the true nature of the statistics. If areas of crime or stereotypes of criminals are focused on by the police this may have the affect of driving crime rates up in specific areas. Lea and Young (1984) found homosexual arrests in Manchester rose considerably between 1959 and 1963, not because of an increase of gay men in this area, but because of a target by the then police commissioner. Sociologists looking at other areas of police input have looked at police bias and the effect this has on statistics. Self-report studies asking individuals to admit the number of crimes they have committed have been used to discover the extent of police bias. One study by Chambliss (1973) highlights police bias between working class and middle class youths, with police invariably targeting and arresting the working class delinquents. The middle-class youths in contrast never received even a ticket for a motoring offence, even though Chambliss found them to behave in a more seriously delinquent manner. What this and other self report studies show is that the common stereotype of the groups most likely to offend may not be reliable. Statistics currently show that the profile for the common perpetrator of crime is a young black working class male living in an urban area. Box (1981) reviewed many self report studies and argues that this stereotype is highly unreliable as there is no evidence that working class males are more likely to commit criminal acts than middle class males. However, the validity of the self-report study can be questioned, as they are reliant on respondents’ memories, truthfulness and the ability to distinguish what is and what isn’t a crime.

Labelling theorists are critical of the way in which statistics portray a specific criminal stereotype, and are more interested in the way the statistics are constructed than in what they actually show. They argue that society ‘labels’ a specific group as deviant, which then increases police interest in certain areas. For example, statistics currently show that young black males are far more likely to be stopped and searched by police. Labelling theorists would argue that this is a result of police officers’ suspicion that this group is more likely to offend. Since then this group is specifically targeted, the recording of crimes by young black males increases, which drives the statistics up in this area. Becker (1963) suggested that this deviant label could lead to deviancy amplification, whereby the more a person or group is labelled as deviant by the media or the police, the more likely they are to continue to be criminal or deviant. This therefore shows how the media plays a role in shaping what the police target, which can have a knock-on effect on an increase or decrease in the statistics. The media are also guilty of creating ‘moral panics’. Hall (1979) showed how moral panics by the media intimate a specific crime is increasing. Between 1972 and 1973 the media reported that muggings were increasing, yet the statistics actually showed that there was a smaller annual rise during the period the moral panic took place that in the previous decade. Statistics are therefore useful in highlighting the inconsistencies in the moral panics that the media portray.

Crime statistics are useful, not only for understanding how crime trends have changed over time, but also for predicting future crime trends. The statistics allow police forces and government to focus on where resources should be allocated, and they allow sociologists to develop theories and explanations of crime. But sociologists recognise that the statistics may present an unrealistic picture of crime, and that a considerable number of crimes go unrecorded. Along with the British Crime Survey, sociologists use studies such as victimisation and self-report studies to paint a more comprehensive analysis of crime. Yet even with all these methods, there are still crimes that remain unreported and unrecorded, particularly sexual crimes and domestic abuse.

I hope this is helpful

1 student responses

kate houston
kate houston

this is fantastic thanks

responded Oct 22, 2008 9:01:42 PM BST
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