What’s happening to crime?

Blog post

What’s happening to crime?

Crime’s still going down and criminologists are puzzled. The latest criminal statistics showed falls for virtually every crime, which doesn’t fit with what’s meant to happen during an economic recession, when at least property crime is meant to rise. So what’s happening to crime? This was the theme of the last Oxford Policing Policy Forum held at the beginning of this month, when experts from across and beyond the criminal justice system sat down together to work out not why crime is (still) falling, but to question whether crime is in fact falling at all.

The proposition on the table was that although crime, as measured, continues to fall, the two main ways in which crime is measured recorded crimes and victim surveys increasingly fail to include a range of new’ crimes. If they were included, a very different picture would emerge, not least one that might add support to the recession leads to more (property) crime’ hypothesis. Needless to say, no consensus was reached, but some important points were raised and the debate will, I predict, now shift.

The two most obvious candidates are fraud and internet crime. From what we know, both are widespread and increasing, but both are also under-reported by victims and (hence) go undetected by the police. Most fraud offences aren’t recorded by the police but by national agencies such as Action Fraud, so they don’t turn up in the crime statistics. Other new’ crimes – people trafficking, tobacco smuggling, identity theft, investment scams, fraudulent landlords, loan sharking, bilking (stealing petrol) and energy fraud to name just a few also seem to evade formal statistical capture. But would this account for the approximate halving of crimes reported by victims since the mid-nineteen nineties? Probably not, but they might well change the picture enough to stop politicians crowing over the continuing decline in crime.

At the very least, the statisticians at ONS should take note. A more significant response might entail a new, more joined-up system of data collection that links information collated by commercial and financial organisations on, say, fraud and cyber-enabled crime and feeds into the published crime statistics. This might provide a more accurate picture of overall crime, particularly if it was accompanied by a step change in reporting and recording behaviour. Unfortunately, people often don’t know someone’s tried to take over their computer and steal their data, but it’s good to know that in Avon and Somerset, for example, PCSOs are now telling people if their computer security has been breached, what it might mean and what to do about it.

What is needed of course is research. What is the extent and nature of these so-called new’ crimes and what harm do they cause? Who commits them the same people who might previously have committed burglary or car theft or are they new’ offenders, attracted by the anonymity of the internet? Do these new’ crimes simply reflect the increasing tendency of organised crime groups to diversify their interests and seek new opportunities wherever the risks of detection are low? And how harmful are they compared with the more traditional forms of crime? Perhaps the statisticians from ONS will tell us more in July when they publish victim data on cybercrime for the first time.