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The Accuracy of Crime Statistics: An Analysis of Their Limitations and Imperfections

Introduction

Crime statistics are the accounts that the state compiles regarding the actions of its agencies concerning the acts that are proscribed by law (Hope, 2013). In that sense, crime statistics are the records maintained by state agencies and it is from there that they derive their legitimacy. It is easy to give credibility to these statistics given by the state, because these statistics come with the stamp of legitimacy being government records. Statistics are perceived to be scientific and independent and therefore, accurate (Godfrey, et al., 2008, p. 27). However, does that mean that crime statistics are always an accurate representation of the incidence and level of crime in the society?

There are many writers and critics who have answered the above mentioned question in the negative. The views of these writers are also discussed in this essay. This essay argues that crime statistics are not perfect representation of actual crime. The essay recounts the reasons why crime statistics are imperfect.

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Crime Statistics – The Dark Horse

There are two prominent viewpoints with respect to crime statistics. The first is the realist view and the second is the ‘dark figure’ approach.

With respect to crime statistics, the realist view holds that the records maintained by the state are the true indicators of the levels and incidence of crime in a given society (Hope, 2013, p. 43). This viewpoint gives credibility to the crime statistics. The dark figure approach argues that the crime statistics do not really present an accurate picture of crimes and there is a dark figure of unreported crime that does not get factored into official crime statistics. The dark figure has been mentioned by many writers, who have put focus on the unreported aspects of crime data because of which crime statistics are not credible representations of actual crime in the society (Coleman & Moynihan, 1996).

There are some critics who question the validity of the official surveys and their findings (Box, 2002, p. 5). It is claimed that there is more serious crime being committed than that being indicated in police records. This would suggest that crime statistics are selective in the reporting of crime. An example of this is in the under-reporting of white collar crimes in crime statistics (Muncie & McLaughlin, 2001, p. 42). Here, there is a distinction drawn between blue collar crime committed by young uneducated males (shown in police records) and white collar crime being committed by White slightly older educated males or females. The latter are not always represented in police records and these crimes become a part of the dark figure (Box, 2002). The problem is that the dark figure of crimes may be difficult to calculate and will affect the majority of crimes (Morrison, 2014, p. 169).

Due to the possibility of faulty reporting of crime statistics, many jurisdictions now use the official crime victimization surveys so as to present the dark figure of crimes. In the UK, the British Crime Survey (BCS) was first carried out in 1982. The 1999 BCS suggested that there were six times as many racially motivated crimes as that recorded by the police (Carrabine, et al., 2004, p. 15). This trend of difference between official statistics and BCS has been noted in subsequent surveys as well (Carrabine, et al., 2004). This is the reason why some writers argue that victim surveys are more accurate representations of crime as compared to official statistics (Croall, 1998, p. 26). In fact, there are some critics who suggest that victim surveys should be conducted locally, rather than nationally (through BCS) in order to get the most accurate data (Maguire, 2002). Others recommend the use of victim specific surveys (such as violence against women) in order to get a more accurate data with respect to particular victimisations and status of crime with respect to a particular group of victims (Mayhew, 2000).

It is important to understand the reasons why crime statistics may be imperfect or inaccurate. There are several such reasons for the discrepancy in the crime statistics and the actual figure of crimes. First, there are certain offences that will always get reported because of the need for reporting for official recognition. An example is insurance claims, for which filing a police complaint is a prerequisite. Here, the crime statistics with respect to insurance claims would show a more correct picture of the crime incidence.

Second, there may be a genuine concern of the police that a crime has not been committed due to insufficient evidence. Third, there may be little possibility of the offender being caught, leading the police to not record the crime. Fourth, the victim may withdraw the complaint and therefore there is no possibility of evidence being given in the court. Fifth, and more serious than the reasons given before, the police may show institutional bias in recording certain offences, and therefore these offences never get reflected in the crime statistics (Hope, 2013, p. 50). These are the reasons that are attributed to the instituionalised under-reporting of crime.

There is a possibility of bias in the records that are maintained by the police (Hope, 2013). Due to the problems noted in the records of crimes maintained by the police, the National Crime Recording Standard (NCRS) was implemented in 2002 (Hope, 2013, p. 50). The Counting Rules were also amended in 2002. The recent directions in Counting Rules provide the vision of the Rules to be “That all police forces in England and Wales have the best crime recording system in the world: one that is consistently applied; delivers accurate statistics that are trusted by the public and puts the needs of victims at its core” (The Home Office, 2016). The Rules also specify that the police should have a victim oriented outlook in the recording of crime (The Home Office, 2016).

Other than the institutionalized factors, there may be some reasons of under-reporting attributable to the victims themselves. Therefore, one of the reasons that crime statistics may be imperfect, is that the victims may themselves not report the crime. There may be a fear of retaliation with the victim being too scared to report the crime to the police (Berman & Berman, 2015, p. 444). Another reason why the victims may be hesitant to report crimes may be due to fear of social repercussions. This is true for rape. Rape victims may not come forward to report the crime against themselves because of the predominant school of thought that blames women for violence against themselves (Stanko, 2000, p. 150). Therefore, there is a social conditioning that prevents rape victims from reporting crime. Another area that shows the negative impact of social conditioning on crime reporting is seen in the context of domestic abuse. For instance, it has been shown through research that South Asian families in the UK show a disposition to under report domestic violence. Despite the statistics that suggest an estimated 1.3 million female and 600,000 male victims in 2004 (Woodhouse & Dempsey, 2016, p. 3), these statistics do not present accurate figures of crime in the South Asian families, which do have a marked tendency to not report crimes of domestic abuse (Izzidien, 2008). Therefore, in these two areas, that is, rape and domestic violence, it is seen that there is under-reporting of crime by victims themselves. The police data that will go on to make the official statistic of crimes, will not take into account the dark figures of rape and domestic violence incidence that has not been reported at all. Therefore, the official statistics will not be the accurate indicators of the incidence of rape and domestic violence.

As an important problem that has come in the way of crime reporting has been the victim’s unwillingness to report the crime, the Rules provide that “Where apparent criminal activity comes to the attention of the police, and the victim confirms that a crime has taken place, but declines to support an investigation or prosecution a crime must still be recorded” (The Home Office, 2016). This is to ensure that the reporting of crimes does not suffer and the statistics do not lose their credibility to dark figure by non-recording of the crime.

Finally, there can be a difference between visible and invisible victims that impacts the accuracy of crime statistics. This can be explained as ‘visible victims’ being those victims of crime that have come into public arena, due to their interactions with the police (Davis, 2007, p. 13). However, it is also argued that most victims of crime actually remain invisible.

Conclusion

Crime statistics are official records maintained by the state agencies depicting the recorded crime. As such, the dark figure of unrecorded or unreported crime is missing from the statistics. This is the reason why there has been much criticism of crime statistics as accurate depiction of crime in the society.

The reasons for the incorrect record of crime is manifold. Some of these factors are institutional in nature and others are attributable to victims themselves. Therefore, due to some reasons it is seen that crime is sometimes not reported at all, or even when it is reported, it may not be recorded by the police due to some reason.

In recent times, use of victim surveys have become prevalent due to inaccuracies noted in the crime statistics maintained by the state. Indeed, these surveys have shown discrepancies in police records and actual crime. This is due to the fact that many times crime does not get reported or recorded. Therefore, there is a lot of truth in the saying that crime statistics are imperfect.

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Word Count: 1604

Bibliography

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