Outline and assess the view that the official crime statistics tell us more about the people involved in their collection than they tell us about crime and criminals [60 marks] Positivists believe that the official crime statistics (OSC) tell us about the crime & criminality and are very valuable. However, Intrepretivists would disagree and would criticise the OCS as they are socially constructed. They argue that the OCS lack reliability and therefore validity because it tells us more about the people involved in their collection eg, the general public, the victims of crime, the mass media, the police and the courts.
The OCS tells us more about police stereotypes and prejudices, judges and jurors, the role of the media, and their views than about actual crime and criminality. Also, Marxists disagree with the OCS as they tell us more about the ruling classes and the powerful controllers of society. The government collects information about crime via the OCS. The crimes are based on crimes reported by victims and the general public which have been recorded by the police, crimes detected and ‘cleared up’ by the police, and crimes reported to the British Crime Survey (BCS) in their annual victims survey.
Positivist Sociologist believe that the OCS is useful because it gives an insight to the extent of crime eg, whether it is increasing or decreasing. The OCS also gives insight to who commit’s the crimes eg, usually 16 -21 year old working class, African Caribbean male. Positivists feel that the OCS helps explain why certain groups of people commit crime. The OCS produces quantitative data, which is often favoured by positivists. The OCS are used to establish trends and patterns in criminal activity eg, the capacity of crime and whether it is increasing/decreasing and the nature of crimes eg, violence or property related.
Criminologist Reiner (2007) suggests that there are three distinct periods in time that are defined by the trend in criminal behaviour. For example, in period one (late 1950’s-1980) there was a rapid rise in recorded crime. In period two (1980’s-1992) there was a crime explosion. And in period three (1992 onwards) there was a fall in crime but a raise in fear. Intrepretivists criticise positivism and therefore the OCS, as they question the reliability and validity of the OCS. They believe that the OCS is ocially constructed, and tell us more about the groups involved in their collection then they do about crime and criminality so do not measure proper crime. Intrepretivists also talk about the dark figure of crime, particularly the Iceberg Theory, which explains how UK crime is made up of approximately 30% of crime we know about and huge 70% of crime we don’t know about eg, unrecorded crime. Pilkington helps to elaborate on how the OCS lacks validity and reliability, as he says that the OCS doesn’t include all crimes because minor offences are dealt with by the Inland Revenue.
The use of self report studies is also criticised, as they refer to past illegal activities through a self completion questionnaire that is confidential and anonymous. However, these reports rely on memory, which can be hazy, making it low in validity and reliability. Sociologist Pilkington notes that the OCS doesn’t include all crimes. Minor crimes are dealt with by the Inland Revenue, which lowers validity and reliability. Also, some crimes do not even reach the OCS eg; institutions punish their own offenders so that the crime doesn’t reach the police. This is done as so because the institutions do not want the bad publicity.
This results in the crimes not being reported or recorded. The changes in law also make it difficult for the OCS to be seen as a valid reliable source. For example, prior to 1991, marital rape wasn’t a crime. So now that marital rape is illegal, and is therefore being reported as a crime, the rape figures seem to have increased when in fact there has been a change in law. It is argued that the OCS tells us more about the changing attitudes of the public towards crime and the reasons why some victims may report more crime or even continue to resist reporting crime.
These trends make the OCS unreliable. For example, today, victims are more likely to report crimes than in the 1950’s because the majority of people have insurance, and therefore will need a crime number from the police. In the past, victims may have feared humiliation at the hands of the police and courts etc, for example, marital rape victims were not taken seriously. Also, victims may have feared they wouldn’t have been believed, for example, victims of child abuse were only taken seriously after child line was founded in the 1980‘s.
Today, people from certain social groups such as minority ethnic groups and homosexuals may still be put off reporting crimes against them as they mistrust the police. The BCS Also suggest that crimes are not reported because people lacked confidence in the police’s ability to clear up crimes, eg, clear up rates for burglary is only 10%. Also some crimes appear to have no victim and so will not be reported to the police, eg, personal drug use and prostitution seem to have no victim. The OCS may also tell us more about the role of the mass media and moral panics than about actual crime and criminals which again would make the OCS unreliable.
Stanley Cohen argues that the mass media plays a key role in the construction of criminal statistics because most of the information that the public who report crime and suspicious behaviour get about crime comes from television and newspapers, particularly tabloid newspapers. Therefore how we see crime and ‘typical’ potential criminals may be shaped by media reporting. The official crime statistics may be amplified or exaggerated by media reporting as seen in the deviance amplification spiral. This cycle results in and artificial increase in the official criminal statistics.
So, overall, the official crime statistics for some juvenile crimes may simply reflect public intolerance fuelled by journalists’ construction of moral panics in a bid to engage the public in ‘newsworthy’ stories eg, those guaranteed to boost the sale of newspapers or draw in a large viewing figures for television. Intrepretivists argue that the OCS tells us more about the nature of policing in the UK than they tell us about crime and criminality. They tell us a great deal about police administrative procedures, how police officers interact with suspects especially those from relatively powerless social groups and police culture.
There are 43 police forces in the UK and they do not all operate in the same standardised fashion and so they do not have the same priorities as each other. Cannabis, prostitution and homosexual importuning recorded on the OCS are unreliable, because some forces are tougher on these activities whilst others are not. The police also have the ability to use their discretion, and it is estimated that only 40% of crimes are reported. A change in police practices and attitudes means a greater willingness to report sensitive crimes; therefore the rise in crime may be artificial.
Also, since 1997, police numbers have increased by 15,000 and there has been a rise in the use of technology, leading to an artificial rise in the volume of crime as it is now easier to catch criminals. Technology increases police efficiency. The OCS is socially constructed as the power to ignore an incident, to give a warning or to arrest somebody. Racial stereotyping is a prominent feature of UK policing, as African Caribbean males are more likely to be stopped by the police. Some police officers see all black people as potentially criminal.
Holdaway (2002) believes there is evidence of police stereotyping ethnic minority groups in terms of derogatory language, jokes and the way that officers from minority ethnic backgrounds are treated. This notion is reinforced in the ch4 documentary ‘The Secret Policeman’ by journalist Mark Daly. Police often operate with stereotypical assumptions and labels about who is suspicious or criminal. The decision to stop and arrest somebody may be based entirely on whether the person fits the stereotype.
Sociologists Hall &Kettle say that racial stereotyping has led to the over-policing of black areas, and according to Robin Oakley, institutional racism within the police has led to a severely negative impact on ethnic communities. It has also been suggested (Cain, Gaskell & Holdaway) that officers divide society into two categories- respectable and potential criminals If people fit into the ‘potentially criminal’ group they are more likely to be stopped arrested and charged. Police occupational culture (canteen culture) is based on negative views within the workforce about ethnic minorities.
Older officers tend to transmit racist attitudes to younger officers. According to Box, the police build up their culture because most are white, working class males who have failed academically. Because police see themselves as middle class and superior to the working class and ethnic minorities, they see their role as protectors of the middle class from these ‘inferior’ groups (Lambert). Police have also been criticised that they do not understand certain social groups and Smith &Gray suggest that this is because officers have convention views and are themselves critical of those whose ideas and lifestyles are different.
The Marxist critique suggests that the capitalist state collects and constructs criminal statistics in order to serve the class interests of the capitalist class that controls it. The statistics serve an ideological function so whoever has the power to collate such statistics has the power to control and manipulate public opinion and concern, for example, the mass media’s influence on moral panics. Box argues that the ruling class amplifies working class and crimes and ethnic minority groups because they are perceived as the ‘problem population’ and they ‘deserve’ more social controls such as more policing around their areas.
The middle class employers are also notorious for failing to maintain safe working conditions, often resulting in the death of an employee, which under any other circumstances would be classed as murder and the person responsible for the breach of health and safety would be prosecuted. Instead, the employer is faced with only a fine as so not to attract media attention. Box concludes that few people are aware of the crimes of the powerful or how serious these crimes are because society’s attention is focused on the ‘criminals’ on the OCS. The crimes of the ruling classes are rendered invisible.
Left Realism is sympathetic to both Intrepretivists and Marxist critiques. It agrees that the media and police pay a disproportionate attention to certain social groups and the ruling class have little social controls. Lea and Young argue that this explanation I insufficient in explaining why working class and black youths are more likely to appear in criminal statistics. Left Realism is critical of both Intrepretivist and Marxist approaches and suggests that the statistics are socially constructed and that they are a product of the media, the police and ruling class practices.
They argue that it is irresponsible of these theories not to recognise the effect that everyday crime and fear of crime is having on inner city communities. In conclusion, the OCS do tell us more about the people involved in the collection than about crime and criminality itself as the majority of the evidence supports this view. As the OCS is collated by the ruling class; who are renowned in history for covering up their own mistakes and amplifying the mistakes of the powerless crimes; it is quite credible that the OCS also lacks reliability and validity.