In the Review of Crime Statistics for England and Wales, it was stated that ‘the overarching purpose for collecting information on crime should be to reduce the impact of crime on society’ (Home Office, 2000: 9). In other words, reliance is placed upon crime statistics to provide insight into the nature and extent of crime so that policies and practices can be evolved that are effective in reducing crime and ameliorating its effect on society. However, extent to which crime statistics achieve this laudable aim is contingent upon the accuracy of the information that they portray thus this essay will explore the efficacy of official statistics as an accurate and informative measure of the nature and extent of crime.
The most widely used and commonly accepted measure of the extent of crime is the statistical data recorded by the police, courts and prison system. These statistics provide quantitative information about the amount of crime recorded by the police (Report of HM’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary), the number of offenders convicted in the courts (Criminal Statistics) and the quantum of the prison population (Prison Statistics). It seems reasonable to expect that these official statistics would provide an objective and accurate source of information about crime.
There are, however, limitations to accuracy of the portrayal of crime presented by official statistics. Foremost amongst these limitations is the fact that official statistics only measure recorded crime. This means that official statistics are limited to the provision of information about the nature and extent of crime which is brought to the attention of the authorities. What official statistics cannot do is illuminate the ‘dark figure’ of unreported crime; as such, the true extent of criminal behaviour is inherently unknown and unknowable (Coleman and Moynihan, 1996). There are various reasons why an offence which has been committed may not be reported to the police.
Firstly, in order to be reported, the crime needs to be observed so those offences that have no witnesses will not reach the attention of the authorities; for example, a person may be the victim of fraud without noticing that it has occurred and without awareness of its existence an offence cannot be reported. Secondly, even if the offence is witnessed – whether directly, i.e. by the victim, or indirectly, i.e. by a third party – it has to be interpreted as criminal behaviour; people do not report lawful events to the police, only those which they perceive to be unlawful.
This construction of an event as unlawful is contingent on the way in which events are perceived and the level of knowledge about the content of the criminal law possessed by the victim or the witness: as Croall (1998: 15) explains ‘events do not come clearly labelled as ‘crime’ or as theft, assault, robbery or murder’. For example, a sexual assault on a young child may go unreported because the child does have sufficient understanding of the nature of the act or of the law to appreciate that a crime has been committed (Soothill, Peelo and Taylor, 2002). Finally, if the event is observed and interpreted as an unlawful activity, the victim or witness has to be motivated to report the offence to the police. These factors go some way towards explaining the inaccurate reflection of the nature and extent of crime presented by official statistics.
Some illumination into the dark figure of unreported crime is possible if a comparison is made between official statistics and victim report surveys. Victim surveys provide a more complete picture of the true extent of crime by overcoming some of the impediments that prevent people from reporting crime (Hale, Hayward, Wahidin and Wincup, 2005). For example, the surveys are completed in the victim’s home which obviates the need to visit the police station and there are no consequences attached to revealing that the offence has occurred (Coleman and Moynihan, 1996). Moreover, the lapse of time between offence and the completion of the survey may serve to reduce the negative emotional consequences of reporting the offence.
A comparison with official statistics reveals that certain offences are more extensively underreported than others; very few incidences of rape are brought to the attention of the police whereas the majority of vehicle thefts are reported (Macdonald, 2001). Not only does this demonstrate the value of victim surveys as a means of gathering a more complete picture of the extent of criminal activity, they provide valuable information into the nature of the offences that are being underreported which allows the authorities to response by implementing more victim-friendly policies as has been the case with rape (Jordan, 2001).
The failure to report crime is not the only factor that renders official statistics an unreliable measure of the nature and extent of crime. In addition to the dark figure of unreported crime, Bottomley and Pease (1986) make reference to a ‘grey figure’ which represents the disparity between the crimes reported to the police and the number of crimes actually recorded by the police. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the police may not interpret the event as a crime as there is a possibility that the person reporting the events will provide an unclear or incomplete description that leads the police to the erroneous conclusion that no offence has been committed.
Secondly, the police may decide that there is no merit to recording the offence because there is no evidence to support the report or there is no possibility that the offender will be apprehended. The police have immense discretion in deciding which reported incidents should be recorded and this has a profound impact on the accuracy of official statistics. The exercise of this discretion may be affected by bias (Reiner, 1992) or institutional pressures created by performance targets (Bottomley and Pease, 1986). Finally, the report compiled by Povey (2000) indicated that hundreds of thousands of offences were failing to register in official crime figures due to police inefficiency and bureaucracy. Overall, it is clear that numerous factors contribute to the inaccuracy of official statistics based upon offences recorded by the police as a measure of the nature and extent of crime.
Official statistics based upon the number of convictions are an even less reliable measure of the nature and extent of crime. The process of attribution is a phrased used to describe the way in which the number of reported cases is gradually eroded at each stage of the criminal justice system between being recorded by the police and the case resulting in a conviction at court. For example, the police may record a crime but, upon investigation, discover no evidence that would substantiate the victim’s claims in court or, at least, not to the required standard of proof of ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’. The police also have the discretion to deal with the case by issuing a caution to the offender.
Equally, the Crown Prosecution Service may decide not to proceed with a case; they have immense discretion not to do so if it seems that a prosecution is either not in the public interest or is unlikely to result in a conviction. More cases are filtered out of the system when they reach court as proceedings may be discontinued and, ultimately, a defendant may be acquitted by the magistrates or a jury. With all these hurdles to be cleared before an offence results in conviction and finally achieves the status necessary to be recorded in criminal statistics, it is hardly surprising that these figures are viewed as representing only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of the totality of criminal behaviour (Maguire, 2002).
In conclusion, it appears that official statistics do not provide an accurate picture of the nature and extent of crime. Victim surveys provide some illumination into the dark figure of unreported crime and demonstrate the discrepancy between the amount of crime which is ‘out there’ and that which reaches the stage of being recorded by the police. Even thereafter, there are several stages to pass before the matter reaches court and the process of attrition whittles away at these until only a small percentage of recorded cases actually result in conviction.
It was concerns over the inaccuracy of official statistics at depicting the nature and extent of crime that led to recommendations in the Simmons Report (Home Office, 2001) that the way in which crime is recorded and categorised should be wholly revised with a view to introducing a new system which would produce statistics ‘of much greater depth and variety then in the past.’ The key recommendations of this report were the adoption of a mixed methodology of official figures, self-report surveys and research studies to produce a more accurate measure of crime and using socially-focused definitions of crime to aid understanding by the public. However, until such recommendations are implemented, it seems reasonable to conclude that the current arrangements for the measurement of crime reflect not the extent of its occurrence but rather the activity, efficiency and policy of the criminal justice system.
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