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What's happening to the crime rate in the UK?


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The way the media reports crime suggests we are constantly surrounded by disorder and brutality. It almost implies that crime rates around us are increasing, but apparently this is not the case at all.

Crime in Britain and Wales has actually been falling steadily for almost 20 years. There’s been a long-term downward trend since the mid-90s, reaching an all-time low in 2014 when crime rates hit their lowest recorded level since 1981.

This fall drastically undermines the popular economic theory that, faced with a recession, the UK was going to suffer from increasing crime rates. But, as the recession drags on and crime rates continue to plummet, criminologists, politicians and social scientists are pondering several other theories.

Crime rate fluctuations cannot be attributed to one single factor, but are dependent on a concoction of various issues; shifting social and economic factors, the emerging impact of technology and the highly underestimated fact that many cases often remain unreported all contribute.

First let’s consider that crime simply might not be reported properly.

The British government operates in two main ways when assessing criminality within the nation. The police keep a record of all crimes reported to them, and since 1982 there’s also the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), a survey of 35,000 households and their experience of crime. However, there are faults in the system.

Many crimes go unreported by the victims. A staggering 80% of women don’t report rape or sexual assault; difficulty distinguishing stolen objects from lost ones often results in unreported crime; many people aren’t informed enough about the process of reporting a crime; and with the closing of police stations and cuts to the number of police officers, it means reporting crimes is becoming increasingly difficult.

There also are faults from an authoritative standpoint, as there have been suggestions of police forces inflating statistics due to the pressure to meet national crime rate quotas issued by the government. The Office for National Statistics (ONS), for instance, expressed concerns that over the last five years, the police listed 400,000 offences as “anti-social behaviour” instead of criminal offences.

The CSEW also excludes from its records crimes committed against businesses – e.g. shoplifting – and does not question some of society’s most vulnerable or excluded people, for example the homeless. It also fails to adequately assess credit card fraud, as victims report their bank or card issuer more than they do to the police.

Specialists refer to all of the above as the ‘Dark Figure’ of crime. According to 2014 statistics, 1 in 5 crimes go unreported. There is therefore a possibility that the margin of error in crime recording is greater than what is currently being taken into consideration, and this could be the reason why the crime rate in Britain is supposedly falling.

Source: Office for National Statistics

Second, let’s consider technology’s role.

When it comes to assessing criminality in the modern age, authorities suffer from an inability to keep up with technology. Contemporary digital crimes are completely different from many crimes in the material world: very common, but also very hard to track.

John Graham, director of the Police Foundation think-tank, states: “Crime is moving online, and that organised crime is difficult to assess.” This significantly affects statistics, as “levels have more than doubled after official figures included cyber-crime and fraud for the first time.”

According to the ONS, more than seven million cases of online fraud are committed every year. As the internet offers easy access to a vast array of information, it is the perfect platform to practice piracy, fraud, blackmail, harassment and the exchange of stolen or counterfeit goods. What is often described as low-level e-crime is actually being committed with impunity on a vast scale.

So maybe crime hasn’t decreased, it has just changed. But technology has both harmed and helped criminal justice. 

Some crime has decreased because technological security measures have increased. Most householders have installed alarms and most new cars have immobiliser devices. Thanks to the proliferation of smartphones, it’s easier than ever for a victim or bystander to phone 999 or record a crime taking place.

Furthermore, the value of technological items is steadily decreasing and devices aren’t worth what they used to be. Similarly, “street crime has also become a more perilous enterprise with the proliferation of closed-circuit television.” Police are now better equipped and can easily track down and identify criminals. The UK terror police chief has noted that fifty attacks have been stopped since 7/7 thanks to advanced policing technologies.

Violent crimes are also reducing in number. A criminologist Ken Pease explains: “Our lives move from meatspace to cyberspace” therefore less goes on in the “real world.” Crime requires an offender with the motivation and ability to act and a suitable victim to act against. Due to the transition to cyberspace, substantial numbers of the population are now less likely to become either offenders or victims on the streets.

Peculiarly enough, the American Psychological Association proved that there are statistics of violent crime falling as video game sales went up. However, the crime rate drop began in 1991, “before Google and texting and before Gen Z was even born”, so trending technology cannot be the only reason crime has dropped.

Just like technology, education has also developed during the last decades and it is highly influential on long term crime rates. Gaining an education has been shown to reduce crime participation, as individuals become embroiled in the education system rather than taking to the streets. Statistics show that a 1% fall in the proportion of men with no qualifications was associated with a fall in crime of between 0.85 per cent and 1%.

There’s also the socio-economic impact of decreasing drug/alcohol abuse. According to a report published by the Home Office in July 2014, a heroin and crack epidemic “fuelled at least half of the crime rise from the early 80s until 2005, and for between a quarter and a third of the subsequent fall, to 2012, as drug users quit or died.”

It is assumed that drug users tend to commit the “larger-volume minor theft or drug-dealing offences”, which make up about 60% of overall crimes in Britain. Plus, numerous crimes associated with the trafficking of the substance itself are recorded. As the market shrinks, so does the crime rate.

Alcohol consumption has also fallen drastically compared to past decades and this has decreased alcohol-fuelled violence. According to Professor Jonathan Shepherd, it is more expensive for 18-30 year-olds to drink. This reduces the risk of them going over the limit and getting into fights or drunk driving.

In addition, there are two very peculiar emerging theories, including the legalisation of abortion and the decreased use of lead in petrol and paint.

The former suggests that unwanted babies are more likely to grow up to be criminals, so more abortions equals fewer future troublemakers. This also coincides with demographic analysis showing that the population in the Western world is aging. As young, adult men are statistically the age group most likely to cause offence, falling numbers are equating to reduced crime rates.

The latter theory relates to the news that toddlers “who had tragically chewed the leaded paint off the railings of their cots were found, years after they had recovered from acute poisoning, to be highly disposed to aggression and violence.”

Lead poisoning is associated with attention deficit disorder, impulsiveness and aggression. Therefore the decrease of lead-based paint and leaded petrol has contributed to the fall of these traits in young adults, therefore lowering crime.

Both these theories are proved to stand, but mainly in America, and they are not necessarily corroborated when it comes to specific British statistics.

Lastly, it is possible to conclude that falling crime rates are very likely caused by an overall social, economical and technological change over time. For instance, criminologist Anthony Doob considers most of the above theories “a dime a dozen,” because there have been countless changes to society and no one factor can be used to determine a change in crime rate.

We often forget that correlation does not equal causality. It is therefore necessary to take into account all the possible plausible factors to create a complete picture, rooting for a constant, continuous decrease for the future.

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