crime data and statistics


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crime data and statistics



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10 crime data and statistics Mike Maguire
Let me be quite clear about this. Statistics is not tables or numbers, sets of techniques, lists of formulae, but is an approach to understanding the world about us. However, that world is very complex and there is no quick and easy way of gaining such understandin g . . . If everything appears simple and crystal clear probably you have misunderstood the issue you are considering. (W. M. Harper, Statistics.)
This chapter explores a number of interrelated questions about ‘crime levels’, ‘crime patterns’, and ‘crime trends and how they are measured. These range from what may sound like (but are not) straightforward empirical and methodological questions, such as ‘how much crime is there?’, ‘how is it changing?’ and ‘how do we know?’, to more sociological and political questions about the relationships between, on the one hand, the kinds of crime data which are collected and published and, on the other, changing perceptions of the nature of ‘the crime problem’ and developments in criminal justice policy and the politics of crime control. The chapter is divided into four main sections. Two of these (the first and the fourth) relate mainly to the latter kinds of questions, while the second and third discuss the main sources of data that are available and the various pictures of crime that they portray. The first section provides a broad historical overview of changing approaches to the ‘measurement of crime in England and Wales. Here it is argued that, from Victorian times until the 1970s, the field was dominated by what came to be known as the ‘official statistics’, a series of annual compilations by the Home Office of offences recorded by the police, whose broad efficacy as a national ‘barometer’ of crime was rarely challenged. However, since then, crime has risen up the political agenda and a whole new industry has developed around the goal of reducing and ‘managing’ it, both at local and national (and, increasingly, international) level. Greater attention has also been
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paid to relatively ‘hidden’ forms of crime that take place in the privacy of the home or the workplace, as well as to new kinds of cross-border and Internet crime, none of which are adequately reflected in the official statistics. These changes have fuelled an explosive growth in the collection, analysis, and publication of crime data from many new sources, in which many more organizations and individuals have become involved. At the same time, the value of the recorded crime figures has been increasingly questioned. They are widely regarded as ‘unfit for purpose’ in terms of new data needs, and the general picture they paint of the scale and changing contours of the ‘crime problem’ has been challenged as seriously misleading. The Home Office has responded to some of these criticisms and demands, not only by developing several major new sources of crime data of its own (mainly through large-scale surveys), but also by the fairly radical step of publishing the annual recorded crime figures alongside results from the British Crime Survey(BCS) (Walkeret al. 2006). This has in effect elevated the latter to the status of a second set of ‘official statistics. The second section looks more closely at what these two principal ‘official’ sources of data appear to tell us about the overall scale of crime and trends over time, and examines their main problems and limitations in this respect. Comparisons are also made between the two, especially in relation to areas in which they have appeared to give contradictory messages. A key message throughout is that this is an area of shifting sands, and that any assertion about crime numbers or trends should be based on a thorough understanding of how the figures were produced. The third section looks at pictures of crime which have emerged from alternative sources of data, beginning with the challenge that was mounted in the 1980s to both police and BCS figures by local crime surveys in inner city areas. Brief accounts are also given of recent developments in (and problems of) data-gathering in relation to types of crime that are especially difficult to ‘count’ and/or do not often come to police notice. These include domestic violence, child abuse, crimes within closed institutions, crimes against business, corporate fraud, cross-border and organized crime, and crimes by governments. Finally, attention is drawn to the recent rekindling of interest in data on offenders(as opposed to offences), particularly through a revival of self-report studies. The fourth section returns to questions about the relationship between crime data and developments in the policy and political realms. Recent significant changes in the Home Office approach to the collection and presentation of crime data, it is argued, have taken place mainly in response to new data demands from policy-makers and practitioners. These demands are driven both by newoeparitnolaneeds (to support local and national crime-reduction initiat ives, ‘evidence-based policy’, partnership working, and so on) and by the strong government focus onperformance management of the police and criminal justice agencies. They have been addressed, on the one hand, by gathering and disseminating more comprehensive information about crime; and on the other, by introducing more checks on the integrity of crime recording (such as the National Crime Recording Standard). While welcome to policy-makers, these develop-ments have had the unintended consequences of confusing the public and politicians
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about trends in crime, and contributing to a general decline in trust in government statistics. These issues will be discussed in the light of a new Statistic Commission review, which concludes that the governance of ‘official statistics’ should be placed into independent hands. Two general points should be noted before beginning. First, most of the ‘official’ data and statistics discussed refer to England and Wales: these are complicated enough, and to attempt to delve into the similar data elsewhere would have been over-ambitious. Nevertheless, an international literature is referred to, and many of the points made have general application. Secondly, the terms ‘data’ and ‘statistics’ tend to be used very loosely in the field of criminology, as well as by government departments. Strictly speaking, the simple frequency tables that are often published under the name of ‘criminal statistics’ are not ‘statistics’ in the sense understood by mathematicians (which implies analysis and interpretation). However, we shall not break ranks, and will use the term as it is used in everyday language, to describe any set of data analysed or presented in a systematic fashion. Similarly, the term ‘data’ will be used very broadly to refer to any kind of information collected in a quantifiable form.
The idea of ‘measuring’ crime in a systematic way—for example, attempting to count the numbers of offences committed, or to determine where and when they most often occur—first came to prominence in France in the early nineteenth century, where it was promoted by the so-called ‘moral statist icians’, Quetelet and Guerry, as part of a scientific vision of discovering laws and regularities in the social world akin to those that had been identified in the natural world (see, for example, Beirne 1993). However, the idea was also highly compatible with the aims and practices of the centralized bureaucracies that were expanding across Europe in support of the emerging nation states. As theorists such as Foucault (1977) have argued, the compilation of detailed information about many aspects of social life was a crucial factor in the development of modernity, and closely tied up with the consolidation of governments’ control over their populations. It was unsurprising, there fore, that the collection and analysis of crime data soon became predominantly the province of government employees, rather than academic scientists. Of course, there are many different kinds of crime-related information that can be collected by or on behalf of governments, and it can be used for a variety of purposes (benign or otherwise), which may also change over time. At one extreme, detailed information about individuals can be gathered and stored in centralised file systems and databases. This usually has more to do with direct surveillance and control than
historical overview: the rise and fall of official statistics
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with ‘measurement : for example, at around the same time as Quetelet and Guerry were writing, Eugene-François Vidocq, the first head of the Paris Sûreté, was operating on behalf of the French government the most sophisticated system of surveillance yet devised, using an innovative card index system of intelligence files on hundreds of people designated as criminals or enemies of the state (Morton 2005).1At the other extreme, the information collected may consist of regular anonymized statistical returns from local courts or police forces, which have little immediate operational value, but may have a number of broader functions (as discussed below). In between are many other kinds of data collected on a one-off basis to inform policy or practice at national or local level, including the results of inquiries or research into specific types of crime. In England and Wales, particular value came to be attached from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards to regular statistical series based on data sent to the Home Office from every local area. The first set of these national crime statistics was compiled in 1857, and similar tables continued to be published annually in government Command Papers—latterly under the titleCriminal Statistics, England and Wales—for nearly one hundred and fifty years. Widely known as the ‘official statistics’, the tables were based on annual returns from the police and the courts which were checked and aggregated by government statisticians. Although the terminology and coverage changed in minor ways over time, the basic format remained remarkably similar for many years. The publication was divided into two main sections, one covering offences recorded by the police and the other ‘offenders cautioned or found guilty’. Most of the tables on recorded crime (the main object of our interest here) consisted of counts of specific types of offence, classified by leg al categories and broken down by, for example, police force area. They also showed trends in the various totals over both the long and short term. The offender-based tables were mainly concerned with the types and lengths of sentence given for different categories of offence, broken down variously by age, sex, and area. Innovation in presentation or analysis was rare, as the statisticians (who over time became to some extent distanced from the policy-making world) were driven more by the aim of producing consistent statistical series rather than that of producing data or analysis geared to immediate practical needs. The production of annual criminal statistics of these kinds has a number of potential purposes and uses, the prominence and value of which can change considerably over time. Their introduction in England and Wales initially provided an important new window for central administrators on to what was going on in different areas of the country, and the statistics were increasingly used to assist them in allocating resources and monitoring court and police activities (including, for example, sentencing trends and police detection rates). At a more abstract level, they came to be seen as providing something akin to an official barometer of the ‘moral health of the nation’, paralleling 1such as the new central IT systemHowever, modern databases which hold information about individuals, which will store all ‘e-OASys’ risk/needs assessments undertaken on convicted offenders in England and Wales can also be used to provide statistical information—for example, to measure the extent of drug problems among the convicted offender population.
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the use of mortality statistics to assess its physical health. To some extent, too, they were taken as a measure of the success or failure of government policies in protecting the public from crime. However, until the 1960s official crime rates generally remained low and there were few rapid upward trends or dramatic year-on-year increases to generate serious concern. There was also something of a tacit agreement among politicians that the power of governments to influence crime rates over the short term is limited, and it was not until much later that crime began to be regarded as a major issue in general elections. Thus while the publication of the annual volume ofCriminal Statistics usually attracted some political debate and media attention, this was usually fairly muted and short-lived. Again, although (a) the police, as sole providers of crime data, and (b) the Home Office, as the agency which specified the form in which they should be recorded and presented, occupied what was almost a duopolistic position in terms of determining how the shape and scale of the ‘crime problem’ was portrayed to the country, surprisingly few challenges were mounted against the validity of the data or the ‘truth’ of the overall picture they painted. In terms of crime data other than the regular statistical returns from criminal justice agencies, the cupboard remained fairly bare—or, at least, stocked with a very limited range of products—for many years. In line with the predominant emphasis in crime prevention policy then accorded to the rehabilitation of offenders, most of the more detailed studies and inquiries carried out or commissioned by government in the early and mid-twentieth century focused upon analysis of the backgrounds and characteris-tics of imprisoned offenders. By contrast, little attention was paid to the physical circumstances or geographical distribution of offences. This applied not just to policy-makers, but to academic criminologists, who were small in number and came mainly from psychological or psychiatric backgrounds. Few looked beyond samples of offenders identified through police and criminal justice processes, and field-based studies of how and where particular kinds of crime were committed were rare. Broadly speaking, then, until well into the second half of the twentieth century, the collection, analysis, and presentation of data about crime was based on limited sources and carried out mainly in a mechanical fashion within a narrow frame of reference. It had a fairly low public profile and was largely left to government statisticians, occasionally assisted by academics who rarely looked beyond the official figures or questioned the assump-tions behind their production. However, since the early 1970s significant changes have taken place. Crime has become a major focus of public concern and a critical issue in party politics (Downes and Morgan, Chapter 9, this volume). Governments have increasingly set out to ‘man-age’ crime problems, and the crime prevention and control industry, in the broadest sense of the term, has expanded rapidly. Rather than relying solely on traditional criminal justice responses such as deterrent sentences or rehabilitative interventions, this has involved efforts to manipulate the environment in order to reduce opportun-ities for offending, as well as the encouragement of proactive and problem-oriented forms of policing (Maguire 2000; Bullock and Tilley 2003). In addition, concerns have extended beyond the ‘conventional’ forms of crime (such as theft, vandalism, and
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burglary) which make up the bulk of recorded offences, to many kinds of criminal behaviour (such as domestic violence and child sexual abuse) that previously remained largely hidden from official view, as well as to the growth of new and more organized forms of crime with international dimensions (such as computer fraud, people-trafficking, and money-laundering) made possible by rapid technological change and globalization (Loader and Sparks, Levi, Chapters 3 and 23, respectively, this volume). Such changes have created a need for new kinds of information about crime at local, national, and international level, including detailed analysis of patterns in particular types of offence that can dir ectly inform policy-making and operational practice, and data that can be processed and disseminated much more quickly than in the past. In response, the numbers of people engaged in data collection and research, and the sources of information available to them, have increased dramatically and numerous new fields of enquiry have been opened up, producing a veritable ‘data explosion’ in the field. This has been evident in the Home Office itself, whose research unit (now called Research Development and Statistics Directorate, or ‘RDS’) has grown much larger than that of any other government department, and has played a significant part in the development of new ways of measuring crime (notably the BCS). At the same time, criminology in universities has grown from a minor subject taught only as part of other degrees, to a flourishing specialist discipline employing several hundred academics, many of them engaged in empirical research. Many other organizations in the public, private, and voluntary sectors also now employ their own researchers to analyse agency records or conduct surveys to produce new data (at national, regional, or local level) about specific types of crime. In essence, we have moved from a situation in which there was only one ‘official picture’ of crime, to one in which (a) the Home Office’s own official statistics are now based on more than one kind of data (as will be discussed towards the end of the chapter, the Command PaperCriminal Statisticshas been replaced by a series of statistical bulletins, headed by an annual publication in which crime survey and police figures are presented jointly—see Walkeret al. 2006); and (b) data from many other respected (and less well respected) organizations provide a kaleidoscope of different, overlapping, and in some cases competing, pictures. Parallel changes have been occurring in many other countries, encouraging a growth of comparative information, as well as a search for more reliable information about the nature and scale of cross-border crime. To illustrate the scale of these changes, a brief comparison of the current situation with the 1970s shows that important new sources of knowledge have been developed in all the following areas. They will be discussed in more detail later in the chapter. 1.Unreported and unrecorded offences.Before the 1980s, very little data had been systematically collected in England and Wales on offences not reported to, or recorded by, the police. The first BCS was not carried out until 1982 (Hough and Mayhew 1983). It has now become an annual survey of over 40,000 people, and has been comple-mented by a variety of local surveys, as well as special surveys of under-reported
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