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Using Official Crime Statistics: Part 1

Using Official Crime Statistics: Part 1

From the very beginning of criminology as a study, there have been two key approaches taken, the governmental project and the Lombrosian project. The governmental project is centred around organising the criminal justice system and understanding how we can improve it to better serve both offenders and the public. The Lombrosian project focusses on the more theoretical side of the subject, trying to understand why people commit crime. While the Lombrosian project can make use of statistics, the Governmental project is first and foremost interested in recording crime statistics, since this allows us to measure how well the criminal justice system is working, and also aid its running.

One of the immediate problems with collecting crime statistics is the difficulties in defining crime, since some see certain actions not regarded as criminal by the law to be moral ‘crimes’. Therefore it is important to note that crime statistics are good only as a measure of those crimes deemed as such by the nation state. Because of this, it is difficult to compare crime statistics between countries, since the laws of these countries will differ and different activities may be viewed as criminal.

There are two main forms of criminal statistic used. The first is the official crime statistic, which is based on official records made by organisations such as the police and the courts. These are good as a measure of these systems themselves and enable us to tell how many criminals are being caught each year, but also have their problems, since there is a large amount of information they cannot tell us, and without these pieces of information, it is very hard to make meaningful assumptions about overall crime. The second type of crime statistic is the victimisation survey. This asks members of the public themselves about the opinions of crime and their experiences with crime. This may be more useful for some purposes, as it allows us to understand fear of crime amongst the public, and also may give us a better indication of how much crime actually takes place.

It was in France in 1827 that the first Official Crime statistics were measured, as was suggested by Belgian statistician Quetelet. Quetelet was intrigued by the idea of measuring crime statistics and how these could be used to better the criminal justice system. He immediately realised however the problem that faced this method of measuring crime statistics. He noted that while it would be possible to get an indication of how much crime was taking place from these figures, it would not give you the full picture, since not all criminals are actually caught. The mass of criminals which are not caught and so are not included in the official statistics is now known as the ‘dark figure’. Without knowing the size of this ‘dark figure’ it is very difficult to make any meaningful assumptions from the data. For example, if the numbers in the stats go down, it can mean one of two things. Either the actual amount of crime has gone down, or simply less of the criminals are being caught. Without the ‘dark figure’ it is impossible to know which.

Nevertheless, Official Crime statistics do have an important role in measuring, at least to an extent, how well the criminal justice system is working and how resources should be placed. In my next article, I’ll look at how they have developed through history.


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