There are many perspectives from which crime can be defined, just as there are many opinions about why people commit crimes. Society often defines crime from a strictly legal point of view, as the commission of any act prohibited by criminal law, or the omission of any action required by it – with a criminal defined as any person who commits a crime. But crime can also be defined by referring to some moral or religious code, or by formulating a definition based upon an intellectual or cultural frame of reference for human behaviour (such as biology, medicine, psychiatry, and sociology).
What constitutes crime varies from culture to culture and time period to time period – what was considered ‘criminal’ a few centuries ago (or even a few decades ago) e. g. homosexuality is not now considered criminal in our culture (in other cultures it is still considered a crime). On the other hand what once was not illegal e. g. marital rape and slavery, are now considered criminal acts. In some cultures abortion is still illegal, whilst in this country it is not.
Differing opinions of crime and its categories, which plague international comparisons, arise from such factors as differences in judicial systems, cultural interpretations of specific activities, and social or economic conditions. Crime as defined by the encyclopaedia Britannica is: “the intentional commission of an act usually deemed socially harmful or dangerous and specifically defined, prohibited, and punishable under the criminal law. ” Criminology is defined by the same source as: “the scientific study of the non legal aspects of crime including juvenile delinquency.
In its wider sense, embracing penology, it is thus the study of the causation, correction, and prevention of crime seen from the viewpoints of such diverse disciplines as ethics, anthropology, biology, ethnology (the study of character), psychology and psychiatry, sociology, and statistic… ” The discipline of criminology offers three basic explanations of criminal behaviour: The classical school of criminology views crime as a product of the free choice of the individual, who weighs the potential benefits of committing the crime against the potential costs.
The positive school sees criminal behaviour not as self-determined, but as due to mental deficiency, emotional disorder, or other biological or cultural factors. The critical school is more concerned with who defines crime, and how; scholars taking this approach study the processes by which sets of people (those in power) define actions as criminal. Criminology has used a variety of methods in its attempt to quantify the amount of crime there is. One obvious method is to use the Official Statistics that are published on a regular basis by most Governments.
In Britain the state has published such figures on a regular basis since 1857. It is the Home Office which is charged with producing a variety of figures relating to crime and the wider issues related to crime. The Home Office has a massive research department which provides for not only these figures on crime but regularly produces publications on particular types or areas of crime. Two of the most important sets of data produced by the Home Office are; firstly the ‘Official Statistics’. These have been produced since the 19th century.
Secondly, there are the sets of data produced by the British Crime Survey. Both use different methods with which to collate and produce the data. Official statistics are generated from the records of the police whilst the British Crime Survey’s figures are gleaned from interviews of a sample population. But for the criminologist there is the problem of the vast amounts of crime that goes both unreported and unrecorded. The sum of these two is referred to as hidden crime or the ‘dark figure’ of crime.
Only a minority of crimes are in fact known via the measures of Official Statistics and surveys. The vast majority of criminal acts are missed by the formal counting procedures. In victim studies/crime surveys, a sample of people from the general population are asked to report any crimes which have been committed against them over a given period of time – six months or a year. Results of such studies in the UK have shown that black people, the young and the poor are more likely to be victims of crime than are whites, older people and middle class people.
Victim studies are the most frequently used form of measuring crime and claims to be the most reliable indicator of the true levels of criminality. These studies help in identifying trends in crime and are useful in aiding risk assessment and/or management strategies. Crime surveys are also useful in recording the publics attitudes towards the police. However, these surveys are expensive, not totally accurate and can be biased in the sampling.
These surveys do not provide us with a clear picture of the ‘real’ crime rate. There are problems such as selective memory – events may be forgotten, may be made to seem less or more important, according to the social position and post-event biography of the witness. Embarrassment or modesty – victims of rape remain less likely to report – indeed, some women who have reported rapes to the police do not do so to victimisation surveys. This is particularly true when the assailant is related to the victim.
Unconcern or lack of knowledge – people tend not to report such acts as vandalism or when reporting the crime isn’t financially rewarding (e. g. when the excess on an insurance policy is higher than the value of the goods stolen). Also these surveys cannot discover those candidate acts that are perceived by no one. These studies, then, suggest that a great deal of unpleasant behaviour is never reported to the police, but they still cannot be said to give us a clear and accurate picture of such behaviour in itself.
The self-report study is an attempt to discover what kinds of people commit offences – in this case, a sample – or a sub-sample more often – of the population is asked to report any crimes or any anti-social behaviour that they may have committed themselves in the course of a given period of time. Usually, a list of offences is submitted to the respondent – usually a young person – and they are asked to indicate whether they have committed the act, how often they have done so, and whether they have come to the attention of the police.
The results have usually shown that the great majority of young people have undertaken delinquent acts of some kind. These studies are useful in that they uncovers crime statistics that would have otherwise stayed hidden and they help to assess the ‘dark figure’ of crime. They also assist in supplementing official data already gathered. However, the reliability of these surveys is questionable. The respondents may not be willing to admit to activities that could lead to their being convicted of a criminal offence.
This might be dangerous, or at the least might lead to their being negatively perceived by the questioners. Also, it is conceivable that some people may over-report, so as to give themselves a rakish image. Furthermore, small-scale studies which are difficult to generalise tend not to ask about the more serious crimes, indeed, they miss completely large-scale drug dealing, corporate crimes of any nature, political corruption, tax-evasion, wilful pollution of the environment or the sale of toxic drugs as medication and of poisonous food-additives.
These are all crimes which are committed by powerful adults, and which arguably cause far more harm, injury and suffering than does the petty delinquency of working-class adolescents. Uniform crime reports are based on crimes that are reported to the police within a specific population unit e. g. Western Isles. There are two categories within this type of report – indexed crime and non-indexed crime. Indexed crime takes into account the following types of offences: – homicide, aggravated rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson. All other types of offences fall into the non-indexed category.
This form of measuring crime is also far from perfect – the main reason being that not all crimes are reported to the police. This could be for a variety of reasons such as the victim being unable or unwilling to report that a crime has occurred e. g. children or illegal immigrants; the victim may think the crime is trivial and the process of reporting it time consuming. Other criticisms of this form of measurement are that the data may be manipulated by police to make themselves look good, and that any arrests made may reflect some sort of bias such as racial or gender.
The International Crime Victimisation Survey is an alternative strategy to measure crime which takes in many different industrialised countries. The reason for setting up the ICVS was the inadequacy of other measures of crime across country. Figures of offences recorded by the police are problematic due to differences in the way the police define, record and count crime. And since victims report most crimes the police know about, police figures can differ simply because of differences in reporting behaviour.
It is also difficult to make comparisons of independently organised crime surveys, as these differ in design and coverage. For the countries covered in this report, interviews were mainly conducted by telephone (with samples selected through variants of random digit dialling). The overall response rate in the 17 countries was 64%. Samples were usually of 2,000 people, which mean there is a fairly wide sampling error on the ICVS estimates. The surveys cannot, then, give precise estimates of crime in different countries. But they are a unique source of information and give good comparative information.
Among the further advantages of the survey are the diverse uses of its data. The desegregated data can be presented in many more informative ways than simple national crime rates or age-specific rates included in most surveys. Most statistical series have not so directly addressed questions of the contextual factors of crime incidence. Secondary analysis of the data could shed light on the effects of socio-economic changes on victimisation rates, repercussions of victimisation, including fear, prevailing attitudes and official responses.
It has also been suggested that more work should be done to refine the methodology so as to increase the accuracy and comparability of the victimisation rate estimates across countries, and bases for finding predictor variables on models of crime and justice policies cross-nationally. Another approach would be to pool cases across countries with important common characteristics, and developing nation-types. Other elements of multilevel analyses might be prediction of the extent of crime-related loss, role of insurance in recovery, public demand for punishment, persistence of fear and factors involved in the decision to call the police.