Crime is not a topic which can be easily defined. It is hard to determine when the actions of a person stop being deemed merely as deviance and cross over into being criminal. When crime is determined in court it is easy to define what measures taken to punish them such as fines or sentencing are the result of crimes deemed more serious however the police do not always record minor offences in this way so what happens to criminals who commit petty crimes, are their offences always recorded in the exact same way to discover the reality of crime?
Crime is not something we inherently know when we are born, it is taught to us through socialisation, the process by which we learn all our socially constructed behaviours. Therefore crime, being socially constructed changes over time and things which may be considered illegal now were not always illegal and vice versa. This means that crime has no definite boundaries.
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It may seem that crime statistics are a good measure of the levels and types of crime which are most prominent in our society, however this is argued as 'it is widely accepted that these official crime statistics, based on offences reported to and recorded by the police, provide a poor reflection of all the crimes that are actually committed each year' (Koffman, 1996: 41). The difference which is known to exist between these statistics and the true figure of crime is known as the 'dark figure' of crime.
The ways in which crime is reported and transformed into statistics is one of the main reasons for the disparity in the actual and statistical crime rates. The most obvious is undetectable crime which does not have an obvious victim such as fraud or tax evasion which is not always reported. Crime detection is heavily reliant on victims reporting crime to the police and as such many victims may choose not to do so for many reasons. Victims may feel the crime is not worthy of reporting e.g. short changing in shops and the effort will be more than it is worth or they may not be taken seriously. As Muncie (2001:195) states, 'the British Crime Survey has consistently revealed that only about 50 per cent of crime is in fact reported to the police'. Even when crimes are reported they are not always recorded by police this may be due to local police forces own policies or the interpretation of the police officers and the use of their own discretion such as juveniles being given an informal warning. It is not only local police forces the Home Office have specific set of procedures to which police officers must use and as such restricts what can be recorded. Another incentive is for the police to appear to be doing a better job as this reflects well on the government in power as a higher rate of cleared up crimes looks better in statistics, '[a] government which reduces crime will expect public recognition for this achievement. Conversely political support is likely to suffer if the level of crime increases. The evidence upon which claims of success or accusations of failure are based is crime statistics' (Joyce, 2001: 45). Therefore crimes which seem unlikely to be solved such as petty crimes housebreaking or vandalism are often left without reports being filed. There is a fine line in this form police reporting as if the crime rate is too low the police forces will lose out in increased police force sizes or new equipment so crimes are very selectively recorded to make the statistics suitable to maintain a balance of funding and confidence in the police.
The 'dark figure' of crime has many other factors which make it very hard for it to be exposed. Witnesses of crimes are often fearful of the consequences of reporting the crime which they have seen with the negative outcomes far outweighing the positive. This can be seen regularly in southern Italy where witnesses to Mafia killings will not come forward as the police have to show they can protect them before they report the crime. Another reason is the effort versus the result, reporting something such as a stolen phone where there is almost no chance of getting it back is rare as it is easier simply to buy another.
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Crime within a family, relationship or friendship also is seldom reported as the bond is determined more important. Parents generally will not report theft committed by their children or report that they are a drug addicts as they do not wish to lose them. Similarly wives often refrain from reporting physical abuse as they still believe in their marriage and have feelings towards their husbands. On the other side of this Husbands do not report abuse from their wives as they are ashamed even though it is relatively common with 1 in 4 women being abused by their partner (http://tinyurl.com/4m3tlm) the opposite statistic of men abused by their partner is only 1 in 6 which is not far behind. (http://tinyurl.com/267wsdg). Furthermore sexual crimes against women may also avenged by relatives such as brothers or fathers to prevent the female from having to be put through the ordeal of going to court.
Since the Second World War the crime rate has risen in the official statistics and there can be several explanations for this which make it extremely difficult to gauge by how much the true crime rate has changed. Most people would say that this indicates that behaviour has worsened over time and seek explanations in changes in families, education or general change in society. This may be true but these statistics cannot prove this on their own. The change in definitions of crime can be one example of this such as 'perks' of the job, 18th Century artisans who worked with gold believed that waste material belonged to them, this of course would be classed as theft now similarly a law has now been passed where it is possible a husband to rape his wife where this before would not have been a crime. Even more recently changes in the law have meant that the drug mephedrone is now classed as a class B drug where it previously had not been illegal to sell as long as it was labelled not for human consumption.
The increases in the crime rate between the Second World War and today can also be attributed in part to the unknown 'dark figure'. It is estimated to be anywhere between six to ten times larger than the official figure and its change may relate to the official statistics in several ways. The true crime rate may have proportionally increased in relation to the recorded crime rate i.e. the 'dark figure' may have increased by the same factor as the statistical crime rate. Another possibility is that police efficiency has increased and the dark figure has been decreased as the official figure rises. A third option which is widely depicted in media dramas and documentaries such as 'Shameless' is that the 'dark figure' has increased in troubled areas and is largely ignored by police as they focus more on crimes which occur in easier areas to manage.
Official figures are often warped showing higher forms of specific crimes where they are in fact not any higher than others. One area where crime is regularly reported more often distorting official statistics is if there is financial gain at stake. Insurance claims require a police report to be compensated and this is a major factor in the increased reporting of burglary as it was not until the 1960s that house insurance was taken to cover such an event. This also leads to incentive for people to commit fraud which in itself is a crime but instead is reported as a theft or arson.
One way to estimate the dark figure of crime which is often employed by criminologists is surveys given to a random selection of people. The surveys used in Britain are the BCS (British Crime Survey) which looks at crime in England and Wales and in Scotland the SCJS (Scottish Crime and Justice Survey) is a bespoke crime survey which is a repeat cross-sectional survey measuring the incidence and prevalence of victimisation among the Scottish population. The survey aims to provide an alternative measure of crime to the police recorded crime statistics, examine trends in the level and nature of crime over time, assess varying crime risks and collect information on a range of other crime-related issues, e.g. concern about crime; attitudes to the police; drug misuse and domestic violence.
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Undoubtedly the extent of crime is impossible to truly understand. With the majority of crimes not being reported or being misreported added with Police and government fixing of official statistics only further disrupts the true image of crime. By using official statistics combined with crime surveys such as the BCS and SCJS it gives a more accurate depiction of what crime is truly like in the country. Even with these means of finding the truth crime is such a prominent factor of our interests it will never be reported in its true form in the media. The majority of people do not have time to wade through masses of information looking for the true facts about crime and therefore get their information from headline grabbing incidents. This means the over exaggerated, violent crimes will always take pride of place above statistical evidence creating a society which constantly lives in fear of crimes which are unlikely to occur.