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How much crime?

How much crime is there and how can we measure it?
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The question ‘How much crime is there?’ is a really difficult one. And you can see from the way the question is put that to answer it, you need to have some idea of what you mean by ‘crime’ – and we know that ‘crime’ is a difficult concept to pin down and define. Even if you think you have got some kind of working definition of ‘crime’, to answer the ‘how much’ question, you still need to think about how you go about measuring it. There is a good deal of ‘official’ information about the extent of crime – and much of this information is compiled by police, and used to generate statistics.
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But the police can only record information about crimes they are aware of. And we know that a significant proportion of crime goes undetected – so that nobody knows it has happened; or unreported, so that even if somebody knows it has happened, they don’t bring it to the attention of the police. Somebody might not report an offence – even if they are the victim of that offence. Perhaps they think it is too trivial; or that the hassle of reporting it outweighs any benefit they might obtain from reporting it. Perhaps they know the offender and don’t want them to get into trouble.
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There are a range of reasons None of those undetected or unreported offences will be reflected in statistics derived from crimes recorded by the police. The way that crime is recorded by the police also affects the statistics - and the fact that the relevant recording rules don’t require all crimes to be recorded means that the statistics based on recorded crimes will inevitably present an incomplete picture of the crime that’s ‘out there’ in the world. It can also be hard to meaningfully compare statistics from one year to the next.
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If there is a change in the rules which requires a greater range of crimes to be recorded, then you might see in the statistics a rise in overall crime which does not necessarily correspond to a change in the amount of crime actually committed. So, to get beyond the recorded crime statistics, and to try to explore more fully this area of undetected or unreported crime, we can, for example, ask people directly about their experiences of crime. The Crime Survey of England and Wales is a survey in which a large sample of members of the public are asked about their experience of a range of crimes over a specified time period.
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The survey can capture information about crimes that have not been reported to the police. The statistics which can be generated through analysing the responses to the survey may be more reliable than recorded crime data as indicators both of how much crime there is, and of trends in crime. But the survey data does depend on the accuracy of the responses given by the members of the public who are invited to participate. So there is no absolutely accurate measure of crime.
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But we might want to use the information about the extent of crime which we do have in socially significant ways – we might want to look at trends in offending behaviour and think about what is behind them; we might want to think about how people are engaging or not engaging with the authorities; and if we are policymakers we might want to make decisions about how we are going to try to address aspects of crime. So, it is important that we recognise that the information we have is imperfect, and that we use it carefully.

In this video, Ailbhe O’Loughlin discusses different ways in which we try to work out how much crime there is. Notice how there are issues with all the methods that we try to use to measure the extent of crime, and bear in mind that if policymakers and lawmakers rely on ‘measures’ of crime, then they need to be aware of the limitations of these measures.

How do you think we might get as close as possible to an accurate measure of how much crime there is?

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From Crime to Punishment: an Introduction to Criminal Justice

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