Official statistics can be used as a general research tool covering topics ranging from the economy to unemployment and from health to education. As far as criminal statistics are concerned, the major method of measurement is through the collation of these official figures, collected by the police and published annually by the Home Office. These figures should therefore be the major base upon which to form analyses and comparisons over time and over societies. Unfortunately though, the statistics collected by police are a poor indication of the full extent of criminality in the UK.
This essay will seek to examine the extent to which official statistics can be said to give a distorted picture of criminality in Britain. In order to do this, the problems faced and created by relying on official statistics will be stated and the alternatives to official statistics, their advantages and disadvantages will be considered. The first problem encountered when trying to collate figures that give a clear picture of crime is the question ‘what is a classed as a crime? ‘ Criminal statistics have been collected since 1857 and therefore are an excellent trend of source data.
Unfortunately, ‘crime’ has changed over that period of time. Therefore the comparability of offences and offence groupings over time is very problematic. Criminal statistics are subject to changing definitions of offences, although recent and planned changes in counting rules are pushing figures up towards a more realistic level. Changes introduces in 1999, for example, included common assault for the first time and led to 12% increase in the total number of offences. Another reason for official statistics not giving an accurate representation of crime levels is the fact that a lot of crime occurs that is not reported.
Although the police do detect some crimes for themselves such as driving offences like speeding or fighting in football grounds for example, this only accounts foe a quarter of detected crime. The majority of offences that are reported are done so by the victim or victims. However, the problem is that not all offences are actually reported to the police by the victim. So what are the reasons for this? Surely if a wring was done to an individual, that person would want to make sure the wrong-doer was held accountable for their actions? Not always. There are various reasons as to why some crimes go unreported.
Firstly, the victim may be unaware that a crime has taken place. This is particularly true in the cases of shoplifting in large stores and in crimes against children. Furthermore, there is the consideration that the victim themselves may have been behaving criminally and would not want to bring attention to their own actions by reporting an infraction against them. Also, the victim may sometimes feel the offence was “too trivial to report it to the police”. 1 Moreover, the victim could be worried about possible retaliation if they report the crime.
They may have been threatened into silence and be afraid to come forward. They may also worry that they will not be believed. Another deciding factor on whether or not a crime is reported is that the victim may actually know their offender and be reluctant to go to the police. This is particularly evident in cases of domestic abuse and violence. Or feeling that the offence was their fault, as can be seen in cases of date rape and sexual assault. Women tend to hide and conceal such experiences, often fearing the physical, emotional and material repercussions of reporting.
Furthermore, Croall argues that crime at work, for example, is often not reported through fear of losing jobs. 2 There is also the problem of white-collar crime. White-collar crime is not represented in official statistics, as it is very difficult to initially detect and then prosecute and is therefore not adequately represented in the official statistics. Even when crimes are reported to the police, this is not an absolute guarantee that they will be recorded and therefore included in the official statistics.
There are certain criteria set out for the collection of criminal statistics by the police, but these guidelines are very open to “different interpretation by different forces, different divisions within the same force and even different police officers. ” 3 For example, a police officer may record a reported theft as ‘lost property’ if it appears to that particular officer that there was no foul play involved. It would be impossible for the police to record every single minor infraction they encounter.
It is necessary for the smooth running of the force that officers use their discretion in the course of their day to day duties and also that the force uses it’s discretion in the allocation of it’s resources. Another way in which official statistics can said to be inaccurate is that some types of crime are “controlled by bodies other than the police. ” 4 For example, drug and other types of smuggling are controlled by the Customs and Excise and unless such crimes reach court and are recorded in court records, they will not make the official statistics.
It is obvious, therefore, that the official criminal statistics do not give a true reflection of criminality in Britain. So are there alternatives? If so, then what are they and do they solve the problems presented by the official statistics? Alternatives to the official statistics have shown there to be a ‘Dark Figure of Crime’. This refers to the criminal activity that falls outside the officially recorded offences. The statistics of crime recorded by the police do not reveal the full incidence of crime committed, since not all crimes are reported to the police and, of those that are, not all are subsequently recorded.