How can we know how many crimes are committed if they are not reported?
The Crime Survey for England and Wales - formerly known as the British Crime Survey - gives a different picture of crime from that presented by the criminal justice system.
It is a massive, labour-intensive, perpetual operation for collecting, analysing and presenting information about ordinary people's experiences of, and feelings about, crime.
Its findings, especially about certain person-on-person crimes such as domestic violence and sexual assault, often show markedly different rates of offending from the official figures. To put it simply, the Crime Survey frequently elicits from its respondents accounts of serious crimes which have not been reported to the police.
Why aren't these crimes reported? Various reasons. Examples include shame, especially after a sexual assault: ignorance, where a victim isn't sure how to go about reporting a crime, or if it even WAS a crime (for example, a certain level of domestic violence may be acceptable in some communities): fear of further victimisation if the police become involved, and so on.
Some victims might put the offence down to their own carelessness, say if they leave valuables on sight in a car which are then stolen, or are embarrassed to have been in the dangerous situation in the first place, as when men are robbed in gay cruising areas. However, they might well mention such offences to the Crime Survey interviewer.
An important component of the Crime Survey is how people feel
about crime. While you'd think that terrifying crimes like home invasions would frighten people most, in reality people are far more concerned with ongoing petty crime such as vandalism and drunks' unruly behaviour in the street at night. They are worried by what does
happen, not what might
This is how information about crime is collected independently of police and court statistics. I have done research using the Crime Survey, which gives precise and fascinating results when you combine groups of variables.
For example, I could ask, 'How punitive do respondents feel towards offenders, if the respondents are over 50, living with a partner, are straight, have adult non-dependent children and own a car and dog?'
OK, you probably wouldn't need to go into quite THAT level of detail! But it's fun to do.
However, by combining certain key variables we can interpret general attitudes to crime. This helps the criminal justice system to target resources where they will do most good.
Where the Survey begins to find a change in respondents' attitudes to certain crimes, this might be the first indication of a coming trend in offending. An obvious example might be where parents of young teenagers describe feeling worried about gang members carrying knives.
These parents are likely to be much more in touch with what's going on than the police are, if only because kids are more likely to confide their own fears in family members than in the authorities.
I came to know the Crime Survey very well indeed and am enthusiastic about it, can you tell?