catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Why are people worried about crime?

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Arguments about statistics that contain few actual numbers always make me suspicious. When they are by mysterious ‘Melbourne writers’ with no obvious expertise the suspicion is raised further. In this morning’s Age, ‘Melbourne writer’ Jonny Korman takes the old argument that we should be less worried about crime on another trip to the opinion page. According to Jonny (how can we take someone who calls himself ‘Jonny’ seriously?):

Australia seems to have become such a dangerous place. Where have we gone wrong? Nowhere, actually. According to criminologists, Australia has become a far safer place over the past century. It is our fear and insecurity – stoked by a sensationalist media and misleading use of statistics – that has skyrocketed in modern times, rather than actual crime levels.

“Scarcely a century ago, Australia was a much more violent and dangerous society than it is today,” says Professor Duncan Chappell, former director of the Australian Institute of Criminology. He points out that the rates of all forms of violent crime have fallen significantly over the past 100 years, and homicide rates in the late 1800s were 10 times higher than they are today.

It is well known that most of us aren’t very good at assessing risk, and indeed few people can cite accurate social statistics on any subject at all. However, the reason people think that crime has increased is not because their memory of the late 19th century is faulty. It is because many people remember the 1950 and 1960s when there was less crime than there is today. Now, crime statistics are a vexed subject. They’ve only been collected on a consistent national basis since 1993. But using convictions as a measure S.K. Mukherjee’s chapter on crime in Australian Historical Statistics showed a threefold increase in convictions for crimes against persons and property between 1955 and 1975. I doubt this was because the police were more effective or the courts more likely to convict (and no, the Australian population did not triple in that time). To the contrary, with police numbers only doubling in that time an even larger number of crimes were probably going unpunished.

Jonny thinks we should use victimisation surveys, and I agree. They help get around the problems of unreported crime and unconvicted criminals. The 2004 victim survey does indeed show a drop since 2000 of the % of people who have experienced a crime in the last 12 months, from 24 to 17. Victims in the previous five years dropped from 55 to 52. So while perceptions of the likelihood of being a victim of crime are higher than the actual likelihood, these fears are coming from personal experience and not just the media and politicians whipping up fear to sell papers and win votes. Over a five year period, about 20% of people report being victim of a crime with actual or threatened violence. It’s really only of academic interest whether crime rates are higher or lower than in the 19th century or the 1950s – they are clearly too high. The positive recent trend is very welcome, but it is not enough.

We can be grateful for one aspect of Korman’s article, though. He spared us the ‘moral panic’ cliche.


Written by Admin

January 20, 2006 at 7:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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