Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Magistrate And Crime Figures

The Magistrate seems to have retreated from what appeared to this reader to be a position that crime figures don't tell us anything, certainly not that they've increased. He also makes an important point all too little appreciated.

"Another thought:- What would the homicide figures look like without the great improvements that have taken place in trauma care? Once a victim reaches a hospital his chance of survival is a lot better than it would have been a generation ago. The same question could be asked about the figures for road deaths. Not simple, is it?I am grateful to the indispensible Chase me ladies, I'm in the cavalry for these links: Here and Here "

The BMJ article posits that murder figures would probably be five times higher in the absnce of medical advances.

But his previous post contains so many items used as ammunition by the 'crime hasn't risen', 'moral panic' schools, that they need refuting or at leasst an attempt at such. Here goes. The Magistrate is in bold type.

? Just to mention a few of the variables that have affected perceived crime rates over the last generation:-

There is one factor here which will affect crime statistics compared to, say, a hundred years ago. More things are illegal now. In Victorian England you could dose yourself with opium and hashish and keep a small arsenal of weaponry quite legally. It was illegal then as now to beat a wife, but prosecutions weere rare However none of these things can explain, either by themselves or in combination, the tenfold increase in recorded crime since the 1950s.

? The explosion in recreational drug use. From a bohemian minority pursuit drugs have become one of the largest industries in the country and account for a huge percentage of the workload of the police and the courts, while consumption continues to rise and social approval, or at least indifference, increases. Vicious turf wars are killing scores of people every year. Some very nasty people indeed have access to millions of pounds of drug money, with the power that brings them.

The explosion in recreational drug use is NOT something that affects perceived crime rates, it’s something that affects actual crime rates. Posession of drugs is a crime, sale of drugs is a crime, although these would not have been offences 120 years ago. Killing people in turf wars or mugging old ladies for drug money is a crime, and would have been a crime in all ages.

? Prosperity has increased across all classes which is reflected in property crime and theft. Few homes, even middle class ones, had many portable goods of any real value in the Fifties and Sixties. Ironically, the recent fall in burglary may have something to do with the flood of cheap imports from the East, making stolen goods hard to sell for a worthwhile price.

So increased prosperity leads to increased crime, does it ? Is that why recorded crime has been falling for twenty years in the US ? Does it explain the huge drop in crime during the Victorian era ? Does it explain why Jersey, Guernsey, Leichenstein, the Isle of Man, Switzerland, Abu Dhabi have low crime rates ? And as for ‘Few homes, even middle class ones, had many portable goods of any real value in the Fifties and Sixties’ – money, telephone, television, transistor radio, record-player, alcohol for starters. The Guardian tells me that it’s poverty, not prosperity, that causes crime – an equally foolish idea. This whole ‘thesis’, if it can be dignified with that title, implies that crime level is purely a function of opportunity. Yet when I go to my friend’s house I don’t slip a CD into my pocket on the way out, although I could.

? Men would routinely beat their wives and the Police were not interested in 'domestics'. Now the Police treat all such assaults seriously and the CPS prosecute even when the woman has changed her mind, summoning her to court if necessary. One woman on my patch called police fifty times in twelve months, and they attended every time. That's fifty crimes of violence for the politicians to wave about.

‘Men would routinely beat their wives’. What, all of them ? Evidence ? I thought domestic violence had increased, not decreased. Where did he get that one from ? My suspicious voice says – a Home Office training course, run by Elizabeth Stanko or Julie Bindel. Even 150 years ago regular beatings were uncommon enough to be noteworthy.

‘ Well, Mother Cuxsom … how’s this ? Here’s Mrs Newson, a mere skellinton, has got another husband to keep her, while a woman of your tonnage have not.’
‘I have not. Nor another to beat me … Ah, yes, Cuxsom‘s gone, and so shall leather breeches !
’ – Hardy, The Mayor Of Casterbridge.

? If two men settled their differences outside the pub at closing time, nobody would call the police - it was just what men did. Nowadays, it's more violent crime in the stats.

There’s some truth here, for some men in some social classes. But I’d imagine that sort of ‘traditional’ scrap is a) quite rare now and b) even today doesn’t result in the police being called. Unfortunately, rather than an agreed ‘alright, outside !’ with coats off, a disagreement in the pub today is more likely to end in a car park ambush by the aggrieved party and five of his mates. The old British saying ‘you don’t kick a man when he’s down’ has been inverted. These days it’s considered the best time to kick him – precisely because he can’t defend himself.

? Armed robbery, by the old-time 'blaggers' rapidly dropped off when the police started to shoot back. Nowadays credit card and financial fraud pays better and is safer. There were no credit cards in the Fifties.

Is the magistrate saying armed crime has decreased, and that today’s credit card fraudsters used to be armed robbers ? There seem to be plenty of new-time blaggers not too far from Ealing Broaday. Try Wembley and Harlesden for starters. In the Fifties there were still cheque books, and con-men using them. Let’s have some figures on armed robbery and its 'rapid drop-off'.

‘If we take the figure for armed robbery, an offence the growth of which in the statistics could not be significantly accounted for by changes in reporting (more telephones, for example) and recording (changes in the law, changes in police procedures), we see that it was such a small problem that no figures were generally published until twenty years ago(written in 1990). In 1970 there were 480 armed robberies. By 1990 there were 3,900, and this rose in the following year to 5,300. This was an eleven-fold increase on 1970, and the increase in the single year was three times the total in 1970.’

? In real terms drink is as cheap as it has been for a century or more, and practically anyone can afford to drink himself into a stupor whenever he chooses.

Point being ? Are increased crime figures are down to the increased number of covictions for drunkeness ? I’d hazard a guess that such convictions have fallen, not increased, over the last fifty years. Drink was pretty cheap in Victorian times too. And there were active social movements against drunkenness. If you are arguing that the drink has caused more crime then again that is affecting actual, not perceived crime rates.

? The number of cars has vastly increased - more theft of and from cars, more dangerous driving, more road rage.

The number of horses has vastly decreased, with a corresponding drop in horse thefts, horse rage and other equine crime. And of course even in the 50s most working men went to work on a bicycle or motorcycle. So stealing a bicycle was a more serious crime fifty or sixty years back – as it was the only form of transport for most working people, a theft was ceertain to be reported. Fortunately we have the historical data on bicycle theft, as reported by Norman Dennis again, in ‘Rising Crime and the Dismembered Family’.

‘In the Sunderland of 1938 the bicycle, in number and as a working-class possession of value and means of transport, was roughly comparable to the motor car today. In the whole of that year, in the whole of the
town, 50 were known by the police to have been stolen.5 In the first six months of 1993 90 cars were stolen or broken into in Sunderland on a single car park of 197 spaces.’

I’m unlikely to visit Sunderland in the near future, unless the Baggies stay up. But I wish he’d named that car park. Avoid the one that says ‘197 spaces’.

? The loss of deference right across the social scene has left many of our citizens convinced that they have the right to do what they want when they want, a problem that has even spread to schools and to hospital A & E departments.

This is of course an important point, and one which starts to get to the heart of the matter. But it has nothing to do with perceived crime rates, and everything to do with actual crime rates. Nor does it explain why a loss of deference should automatically imply an increase in crime. What it boils down to is that many of our citizens, a much higher percentage than fifty years ago, have no concern or consideration for others, and are prepared to break rules and laws to get what they want. We call these people ‘criminals’.

? Relatively few people had their property insured - with no prospect of an insurance payout many crimes went unreported. Nowadays the Crime Number is all-important so the statistics go up.

This is certainly an argument, but one for which (to my knowledge) no actual evidence has ever been presented. It relies for its force on the assumption that people in times past treated thefts and burglaries as routine. The only source of possible evidence for this is literature, autobiography, and interviews with the elderly. I don’t know of any evidence from such sources that supports it.

The Magistrate seems like a decent sort. I just worry he's hanging out with the wrong people - Home Office advisers, the Magistrate's Association and the like. Or maybe he's taking seriously what they tell him. To repeat myself :

Image of magistrates as hard-headed traditional types ? Forty years too late mate - this gives more of a flavour of today's Bench.

"Magistrates rate Probation as having a greater effect on reducing crime than Prison.
Eight out of ten agree that community sentences punish offenders.
Eight out of ten agree that community sentences enable offenders to pay back to the community.
Seven out of ten agree that community sentences help to rehabilitate offenders.
Magistrates are not aware yet of the evidence that Probation programmes reduce re-offending.
Magistrates seem to want wider public support for their use of community penalties."

I like "Magistrates are not aware yet of the evidence that Probation programmes reduce re-offending." That's because there isn't any.

No comments: