A Discussion of the Usefulness of Official Crime Statistics and Other Types of Crime Information.

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Although ‘official' statistics should provide an accurate representation of crime, criminologists and sociologists are keen to emphasize that they should be seen in a critical mindset. This essay is focused on determining just to what extent official statistics provide an accurate representation of the extent of crime through examining different arguments concerning their limitations and benefits. This essay also focuses on other types of crime data such as the victim survey and qualitative data, to see whether they provide a more truthful portrayal of crime.

The first half of the essay analyses the usefulness of official statistics. Here a main theme is the socially constructed nature of crime and crime statistics, and the consequences of this, and how the accuracy of official statistics is affected by the problems associated with police recording, such as the inconsistency of police behaviour and reporting patterns, both by the police and the public. The second half of the essay looks two types of alternative crime data; victimization surveys and qualitative data. Here the key point is drawn from the work of Coleman & Monynihan (1996: 21), that these types of data provide an alternative, rather than a directly comparable, overall picture of crime to that offered by police statistics: ‘fuller' than the later in some respects, but ‘narrower' in others.

Official crime statistics refer to the data obtained directly from the police and the court system. Although they are accredited for being ‘official', criminologists and sociologists are keen to emphasize that they should be viewed with a critical mindset. Two fundamental theories relating to this critical view of official statistics: ‘the tip of the iceberg' and the ‘dark figure' of crime, relate to the argument of the existence of a vast number of unrecorded crimes, hidden away from the official statistics.

From a more micro perspective of the system, the accuracy of official crime statistics as a representation of the extent of criminal activity in a particular area is significantly reduced by a number of factors. For example, even when an incident is reported to the police it will not count as a crime unless the police record it as such. This is reflected by the 1994 British Crime Survey estimating that 40 per cent of offences reported to the police were not recorded (Mayhew et al., cited in Muncie, 1996). Furthermore, according to Coleman and Moynihan (1996: 35), the police recording of offences is dependent on three broader contexts: the political content at the time of the offence, the organizational context of policing priorities and the situational context of how the offence is reported and by whom. For example, a political emphasis on a certain type of crime that has recently had a large amount of media attention, can provoke the police to ‘crack down' on that particular type of crime, giving the impression that more types of crimes are being committed, when it is in fact more of a representation of the behaviour of the police. This refers to the argument put forward by Maxfield et al., (1980), that instead of being associated with representing criminal activity, official crime statistics are more successful at portraying the behaviour and performance of the police force.

Another factor that decreases the usefulness of official statistics in representing the true extent of crime is the fact that legal definitions of what is and what isn't a crime, can evolve over time. This was seen with how after 1977, the distinction between minor and major accounts of criminal damage was abandoned, and instead became a single classification of ‘all known crimes', which resulted in an apparent doubling of crimes of vandalism in a year (Pearson, cited in Muncie, 1996). Also, due to pressure from such influences as the government and the media, even within a short space of time, police behaviour towards a certain crime can drastically change, for instance, a new...
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