Understanding crime statistics: why is measuring crime so problematic?

crime statistics rate

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Is the crime rate going up or down? Measuring crime is difficult and official crime statistics are hard to interpret and compare. Join the debate and find out why.

This debate is based on the LSE100 lecture “Understanding trends in crime and punishment" by Tim Newburn Professor of Criminology and Social Policy (07 November 2016) at The London School of Economics and Political Science. This lecture was part of the series "Is punishment the answer to crime?"


Crime statistics

Understanding trends in crime is extremely important in order to assess the need for and effectiveness of punishment. Governments adapt their responses to crime according to the magnitude of the problem and the success of the measures in place. However their crime figures are not always straightforward, and knowing whether crime rate is going up or down can be more challenging than one might imagine. Depending on the approach to measuring crime, the dimension and evolution of the problem varies. Broadly there are two may ways of measureng crime: police-recorded crime statistics and victimization surveys.

Police-recorded crime statistics

Police-recorded crime statistics are very valuable because they provide lengthy time-series datasets which help establish across time and area comparisons of the crime rate. Police crime figures are formally regulated and stardardized. Usually crimes are immediately reported to police so the accounts from victims and witnesses tend to be fresher than those in crime surveys. Most countries have collected these statistics for decades. However there are also some limitations to crime statistics recorded by police:

  • Not all offences are included in police records.
  • Counting rules change over time. Law-makers often decide to change the definitions of some offences and crimes.
  • The willingness of the public to report crimes varies over time. Some victims and witnesses feel embarrased or scared to report. Sometimes they are not fully aware of the severity of an offence or prefer to deal with the problem in a different way. Approximately 55% of the crimes are not reported.
  • Police may not always appropriately record the crimes that are reported. Some victims may refuse to press charges. Police may judge that there is insufficient evidence to confirm the crime. Additionally there are problems associated to police malpractice. Some crimes are erased of the books or not recorded to make crime rate look better or to reach certain goals. In other cases police can even manufacture crimes by planting or manipulating evidence.

Victimization surveys

Victimization surveys were introduced in 1972 in the US (National Crime Victimization Survey) and in 1981 in the UK (British Crime Survey). Victimization surveys are a means to complement police-recorded figures and improve official crime statistics. They offer several advantages:

  • Crime surveys are based on large and representative household samples. For instance in the US from 49,000 to 77,400 households are surveyed every year.
  • They capture incidents that were not reported to police.
  • They capture incidents that were reported but not recorded by police.
  • Victimization surveys reflect the expreince of the victim, rather than the interpretation by the police.

However, victimization surveys have also some limitations:

  • They tend to focus on adults, with crimes concerning children tending to be under-represented.
  • There are some types of crimes that are not effectively captured such as domestic violence, drug trafficking, business crimes, and internet-based crime.
  • Victims accounts are not always accurate because of the time period between the time in which the crime took place and the survey.
  • Some victims are reluctant to admit victimization.
  • Those living in hotels, prisons, university residences, or on the street are excluded from the sample.

All the problems suggested above tend to create discrepancies in official crime statistics and make more difficult to establish comparisons and depict tendencies in crime rate. Out of all the existing problems measuring crime, which one do you think is the most serious?

Recommended readings:

  • Flatley, J, C Kershaw, K Smith, R Chaplin, and D Moon (2010) Crime in England and Wales 2009/10: Findings From the British Crime Survey and Police Recorded Crime (Third Edition). London: Great Britain Home Office (link)

  • Lum, K, and W. Isaac (2016) "To predict and serve?" Significance, 13(5): 14-19 (article)

  • MacDonald, Z. (2002), "Official Crime Statistics: Their Use and Interpretation" in The Economic Journal, 112, pp. F85-F106. (link)

  • Maguire, M. (2012), “Criminal Statistics and the Construction of Crime” in The Oxford Handbook of Criminology. Fifth Edition. M. Maguire, R. Morgan and R. Reiner (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Video: Why smart statistics are the key to fighting crime? TedTalk by Anne Milgram (New Jersey General Attorney)

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