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Study Notes

Measuring Crime

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 18 Jul 2018

The distribution of criminality is often expressed in terms of the crime rate.

The crime rate is data taken from official police statistics revealing the number of crimes committed per 1,000 individuals in the population. Crime rates tend to be broken down into rates for each category of crime, e.g. violent crime. In 2017, for example, it was found that the murder rate increased by 26% and knife crime increased by 20%, meaning more of these crimes were present in society than in the previous year. This followed significant increases from the year before. The overall crime rate has also increased for the third year in a row following many years with a falling crime rate.

Official crime statistics are generated by what is recorded by the police, and then what is processed through the criminal justice system. In 2014, the Office for National Statistics removed their "gold standard" from police statistics on the grounds that they were simply unreliable due to inconsistencies in recording and even deliberate alteration of the statistics. Alongside the Crime Survey of England and Wales they are our key source of information in relation to trends and patterns in criminality and victimisation.

However, interpretivist sociologists would question police statistics as they really only measure what the police record and do not present an accurate picture of real crime: they are a social construct. They can produce fantasy crime waves; for example, if the police had chosen to crack down on knife crime, the increased activity would give the illusion of an increase in the crime itself; and it misses out the dark figure of crime.

The dark figure of crime: It is widely understood the official crime statistics will miss out a wide range of criminal activity that occurs but is not recorded. Most recorded crime is reported to the police by victims or witnesses. There are many reasons why people might not report a crime: fear of reprisal, not believing that the complaint will be taken seriously, or choosing to resolve the issue privately or personally. Historically, for example, crimes committed within families have not always been taken to the police.

Sometimes people are not even aware that they have been a victim of a crime, and some criminal behaviour is essentially "victimless" or the victims are so dispersed that no one reports the activity (e.g. some corporate crime and fraud).

Every year the Home Office conduct a survey in order to gain a better picture of levels of criminality in the UK than that offered by official police statistics: the Crime Survey of England and Wales. This is primarily a victim survey in which a representative sample of the public is asked about any crimes they have experienced, as victims, in the preceding 12 months. Although this captures some of that dark figure of crime, it is still by no means comprehensive. Moreover, it depends on people's memory of the events they recount. Victims' prejudices or stereotypes of a likely criminal can impact the data when they are actually unaware of particular characteristics of an offender.

When exploring the social distribution of crime, it is always important to remember that the data available are contested.

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