The 'Data Explosion’ and its Implications

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INTRODUCTION

This chapter explores a number of interrelated questions regarding the state of our knowledge about 'crime levels', 'crime patterns' and 'crime trends'. These range from what may sound like (but are not) straightforward empirical and methodological questions, such as 'how much crime is there?', 'how is it changing?' and 'how do we find out?', to broader questions about the relationships between, on the one hand, the kinds of data which are collected and published about crime and, on the other, public perceptions of 'the crime problem' and developments in criminological thought and criminal justice policy. A key message throughout is that statements about crime numbers or trends should always be approached in a critical frame of mind. This is an area of shifting sands, where one has always to be aware of the creation of new offences, or changes in legal definitions or counting rules and practices. More than this, though, the possibility must be faced that the concept of a 'true' total of crimes has no useful meaning. Criminal offences may be carefully defined in law, but they are also socially defined and constructed: whether people perceive a particular action or event as a crime, let alone whether they report it as such to anyone else (including the police, or a survey interviewer), can vary according their own knowledge, awareness or feelings about crime, which in turn may be influenced by the general public 'mood' or the preoccupations of politicians and the media. Moreover, the collection and presentation of data themselves play a dynamic part in the crime construction process, both influencing and being influenced by current social concerns. It is nevertheless worth emphasizing that recognition of these issues does not mean that we have to adopt the extreme relativist position, espoused by many criminologists in the 1970s, that quantitative data (and especially the official crime statistics) tell us nothing about crime and that they should therefore be abandoned or ignored. On the contrary, they can tell us a great deal: the trick is to approach them critically, with a full understanding of how, why and for what purposes they were produced.

Summary

Most of the data and examples presented here relate to England and Wales, but the questions they raise are pertinent to all jurisdictions in which attempts are made to 'measure' crime. Since the last edition of the Oxford Handbook in 1997, there have been some significant developments in this country affecting the official crime statistics. These include various technical changes which together have considerably inflated the official totals of recorded crime: for example, the upgrading of 'common assault' and other minor offences to the status of 'notifiable offences', thus widening the range of behaviours included in the published statistics. Another development has been a doubling of the sample size of the British Crime Survey (BCS), which will for the first time provide survey data at the level of individual police force areas, thus enhancing the role of the BCS (which has also moved to an annual cycle) as a directly comparable 'rival' to the police generated crime statistics. Potentially most important for the longer term, however, have been proposals from the Home Office for a radical revision of its traditional approaches to the collection and presentation of crime data, the main aim of which is to produce a 'picture of crime' of more practical use to policy-makers. The proposals include combining data from a wider range of sources, providing more information about contextual factors (such as the locations of offences and the extent of damage or loss suffered) and, more controversially, a move from 'offences recorded by the police' to 'calls for service' as the basic building blocks of official statistics. All these developments and their implications will be discussed in more detail later in the chapter.

Conclusion

The chapter is set out as follows. The first main section explores some of the major changes that occurred during the last quarter of the 20th century in the collection and presentation of information about crime. It is demonstrated that a major 'data explosion' occurred, greatly widening the range of 'knowledge' about crime, especially about offences which had previously remained largely hidden from view, about the physical circumstances of offences, and the differential risks of victimisation among different types of area and individual. The production of (and investment in) new kinds of knowledge, it is argued, is dynamically linked to major changes that have taken place in public, political and media perceptions and representations of the 'crime problem' and how to deal with it - developments themselves associated with wider social and economic changes which have helped to elevate crime to a central position on the political agenda. The next two sections take a close look at statistics based on police crime records, and at data from the British Crime Survey, which are fast replacing the former as the key 'official' source of statistics used in policy-making, planning and performance measurement, as well as research. This is followed by a brief discussion of the 'Simmons report' (Home Office 2000), which sets out a vision for a radically new approach to the collection and presentation of crime data. Its recommendations, it is argued, have far-reaching implications, both nationally and locally, for how crime 'problems' and 'risks' are conceptualised, analysed, prioritised and responded to. The penultimate section examines the relatively neglected topic of data about offenders (as opposed to offences), including a brief look at the pictures which emerge from self-report studies in comparison with police, court and prison records. Finally, some concluding remarks are made about the broad implications of all these changes.

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