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Using Official Crime Statistics: Part 2

Using Official Crime Statistics: Part 2

Official Crime Statistics, as we noted in Part 1 of this topic are a very useful tool for understanding how well the Criminal Justice System is functioning, and though it has its problems, in the modern day, our government simply wouldn’t work without it. Yet, it hasn’t always been this way. Criminal Statistics are in fact a relatively recent invention.

Though Quetelet collected the first crime statistics back in 1827, similar approaches in the UK did not emerge until around 1856. This was in the form of the Judicial Statistics, but these only covered information on sentencing. Complete data from the police and the courts was first published in the UK in 1876. This publication continues to be released annually entitled ‘Criminal Statistics’, as well as Sentencing Statistics and Prison and Probation Statistics.

The Sentencing Statistics discussed above, are important not only as a measure of the Criminal Justice System’s functioning, but also because they are used to create the Offenders Index and Police National Computer database which are used by the courts and the police in their day to day functioning, and helps the authorities to keep track of each individual’s data as well as that of the country as a whole. The Prison and Probation Statistics are useful for criminologists in particular as they provide useful information about prison populations over time and which crimes were punishable with prison sentences at which times. However, for the government and Criminal Justice System, they are primarily used to calculate the current prison population so that resources can be used effectively. In recent years concerns have been raised about the size of our prison population in the UK, since it is the highest in Europe, and it is costly to maintain this form of punishment. Some have questioned whether there are better and more efficient ways to punish offenders.

However, in whatever manner we decide to use this data, it is important to understand its limitations. An untrained eye looking across time at the statistics may be very shocked at what they see, since it appears that overall crime rates have grown to about 7 times the size they were at the beginning of the 20th century when official criminal statistics were first recorded. This seems like a rather dramatic rise in crime and it may terrify the viewer of the statistics into never leaving their home again. However perhaps there is another explanation for these results. We must remember that at the time these criminal statistics were first recorded, there may have been relatively little rules regarding their use, and some reluctance from police to spend time recording crimes and so many crimes will have gone unrecorded, partially explaining the difference in the figures. Equally, the policing methods used today may be much more rigorous, meaning that though levels of crime are similar, more criminals are caught. This means more are put on record making it appear as though more crime has been committed in the first place.

Legislation can have a big impact on recorded criminal statistics as well. New legislation that leads to new offences can mean that overall recorded crime increases dramatically, as since there are more crimes, there is a greater likelihood of people commiting them. When Prohibition occurred in America, the crime rates presumably rose quite dramatically for a period of time, since there was now a new crime, which a surprisingly large proportion of American citizens were willing to commit. Alternatively, when homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967, crime rates would have dropped somewhat, because there were fewer ways in which one could break the law.

In the next article, we’ll consider further limitations of Official Crime Statistics and how these can be combated, or what other methods can be used to better measure crime. 


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