Are we in the midst of a crime wave?

I overheard a conversation the other day in which a woman said that she was worried, because we seemed to be in a crime wave — shootings, dreadful things happening to people, rape, nothing was sacred, no one was safe. According to my vague memory, things criminal were much the same as they had been. I wondered whether she got her feelings from watching television news, and I would guess that was at least part of it. Crimes of all kinds are the staple elements of news, because they are dramatic, they can make us fearful for ourselves, and they are not at all boring.

I set off to find out what I could. I did this many years ago for another purpose, and then discovered that the safest and least turbulent period in the last century, at least with respect to crime, was the Great Depression. Theft, robbery, rape and murder were all at their lowest rate then. What was the story now?

I used to go for data to the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC), where the Library and its staff were most helpful. Today much of the material you would want to use is available online, and the story it tells is most interesting. I’ve gone back twenty years to when Australian GDP per capita was roughly half what it is today. In 1993 our population was 17.7 million; it is estimated at more than 23.5 million today. We are, on average, twice as wealthy as we were then, and about a third more populous. What has that meant in terms of crime?

I need to start with a warning. Not all crime is reported (sexual assault is thought to be greatly under-reported), and not all alleged crime is actually crime. Not all crime is solved, either. The Institute provides this kind of warning when it presents its data, and it provides helpful and clear definitions, too. Reading the warnings reminded me of the problems in measuring temperature (about which I will have another post very soon). Yet I think there are broad trends, and here are some of them.

* The early 21st century seems to be a lot safer, in almost every respect, than the early 20th century. This is a more civilised and peaceful society than it was then.

* Compared to 1993, murder and manslaughter are less common, both absolutely and proportionately. Despite all the talk about drive-by shootings, homicide involving guns represents only about a sixth of all murders. Knives are twice as common as murder weapons.

* Sexual assault cases are way up — about 50 per cent.  Nobody knows how much of the increase flows from a greater preparedness on the part of women to come forward and register a complaint, and how much from the fact of more sexual assaults. Incidentally, about one in six of the victims, those alleging a sexual assault, are men.

* Both armed and unarmed robbery are a little more frequent than they were in 1993, though the rate is much the same.

* Kidnapping and abduction are uncommon, but they are a little more frequent now than they were.

* Unauthorised Entry With Intent refers to people who entered your house because they could get in, and while in they appropriated something of yours and left — in short, household theft. That crime has nearly halved since 1993, while motor vehicle theft actually has halved. All other theft is rather less common than it was.

* The place of crime, for anything violent, is likely to be a residence of some kind, while robbery is more likely to take place somewhere else.

* Finally, men are the most likely victims for murder, manslaughter and robbery, women for sexual assault and kidnapping.

The evidence for all of this has errors all around it, like temperature, but on the evidence that we have, there is no crime wave of any consequence, if we are comparing now to the recent past. The long-term (twenty-year) trend is down, or stable, for all categories of crime save sexual assault. In the past twenty years our population has  grown by a third and our average wealth has doubled. Over the last fifty years there has been a great decline in church-going, too. Does all that tell us anything? Not to me. Too many variables.

In fact, the rates of crime over the last century, apart from the time of the Great Depression, seem to vary around a mean in most cases. If rates go up, they later go down. It is as though what we define as ‘crime’ is simply a part of the experience of our society. That doesn’t mean I accept it, just that greater wealth all round doesn’t seem to reduce the rate of homicide, even if it appears to be associated with a fall in the rate of theft. But then, we were even less inclined to steal when people had very little and things were tough.

I’d happily argue with someone who wants to tell me that we are in a crime wave and that ‘They’ have got to do something about it. The evidence doesn’t support such a claim. But I don’t have explanations. As so often in the social sciences, there are too many variables and the data, though expressed in numbers, are awfully rubbery.




Join the discussion 13 Comments

  • margaret says:

    I would hazard a guess that the woman making that comments in the conversation you overheard was over sixty years old. I’d be more interested if she was under fifty perhaps. Or, if it was a man of 40-50 years having that conversation.

    We hear awful things on television news and always have – but now we have ‘raw vision’ of a policeman bashing a woman’s head into the pavement (in America) etc. and I remarked to my husband that the news could not be watched by children and/ or anyone prone to anxiety, as it is simply too horrific.

    To show via statistics that this century everyone is ‘wealthier’ as a society is misleading. Some in the socioeconomy (my word) are wealthier in great comfort, having seen their income reach previously unimagined levels and others are wealthier in great discomfort as they struggle to pay mortgages and childcare. Some are aware of this, and others prefer to use that old catchcry, ‘well I did all the right things and pulled myself up by the bootstraps so go on, you all do it too – or go to hell in your handbasket’.

    • Gus says:

      “I remarked to my husband that the news could not be watched by children and/ or anyone prone to anxiety, as it is simply too horrific.”
      On the contrary. Children should watch this, as older generations watched it unfold right in front of them in WWI and WWII, just so they’d know what the world is really like and how lucky they are to be living in a society that is orderly and peaceful. This is not a normal state of affairs. It takes a lot of money and hard work, tradition and culture based on sweat and toil of previous generations, to make it so and to keep it this way. They should appreciate this and understand that they may very well lose it, unless they contribute to it themselves in the future.

  • margaret says:

    During the Great Depression my grandfather, a returned soldier/stretcher bearer, had to leave his family in Sydney and go to Melbourne for work. They had to rent out their home and my grandmother and their three children had to move in with his mother until he was able to return.
    These decent folk had no time to even consider rape or murder or theft (not that they were the type, but proportionately few are) and I would think that Australia’s population of healthy males having been savagely depleted by fighting in a useless war we had no need to be in, (when after Federation Australia’s future had been so promising), the morale in socioeconomy (my word) was at an all time low and violent crime therefore less likely than now when we all know so much more about and have so much access to, the dark side of life. But of course I have no ‘damned statistics’ to back this up.

    • Gus says:

      “Australia’s population of healthy males having been savagely depleted by fighting in a useless war we had no need to be in”
      Being an integral part of the British Empire (the divorce did not happen until 1942) Australia *had to* join Britain in the war. Just how “savagely was Australia’s male population depleted” in the war? Not any more than of most other participating powers. Australia lost 1.38% of her population in the war, but France lost 3.53%, Germans lost 3.14%, Britain lost 1.96% and Romania lost 4.48%. Australian losses were less than those of Bulgarians and Turks.
      For comparison, in WWII, Germans lost 10.5% of their pre-war population, Poland lost 16.7%, Yugoslavia 11%, Lithuania 14%, Greece 11.2%, Japan lost 4.37%, Nauru lost 14.7%, Singapore 6.87%. This time the western powers managed to fight the war (mostly on the backs of Soviet soldiers) avoiding casualties. Britain lost 0.94% of her pre-war population, both civilian and military, Australia 0.57%, France 1.35%. But the Soviets lost 14.2%.

      • margaret says:

        Thanks for the stats Gus!!

        • Margaret says:

          Australia’s casualties did represent terrible losses both as a proportion of its forces committed and its small population. I guess why ‘lies damn lies and statistics’ annoy me. Life isn’t a numbers game.

          • Gus says:

            “Life isn’t a numbers game.”
            On the contrary: numbers are the sole arbiter of truth. Think of the pain that Australia’s loss of 1.38% of her population, mostly male, in WWI caused. Now think of the human tragedy and devastation that the loss of 14.2% caused the Soviets, and it didn’t end there, as Stalin’s purges and imprisonments continued for years after WWII ended. In Poland, WWII wiped out elites, which it took decades afterwards to rebuild. The German loss of 10.5% of their population, followed by loss of territory and the partition of the country was a sobering event, showing them in real terms, for what can be more real than seeing every tenth of your neighbors, friends and family killed, the cost of waging the war and the savagery they brought upon other people.
            In the US Civil War Americans lost 625,000 people–the bloodiest war in the US history in absolute terms. How much was it in relative terms? At the time the US population numbered 31 million people. So the relative population loss in the Civil War was 2%, which was more than British losses in WWI. Such was the price Americans paid for abolishing slavery.
            The total number of slaves in the US in 1860 was about 4 million. Thus, for every six slaves to go free, one American had to die. And this price was paid. This ought to be remembered. Americans owe nothing more to their African compatriots.
            Numbers, they tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

          • margaret says:

            I woke this morning to 6 hugs and 1 song called I am the Earth sung by my grandaughter. Then I measured 1 cup of oats into the saucepan and added 1 cup of low fat milk and 1 cup of water. She stirred the porridge 20 times and I sprinkled on some cinnamon sugar. Soon we’ll catch the number 86 tram and arrive at the Princess theatre where we’ll see that now unfavoured orientalist musical The King and I. The cast of hundreds will have beautiful costumes and 20 kids that I hope will delight her. These are the sort of numbers I prefer because they tell the truths that we live as humans.

          • Gus says:

            A cup of oats contains 54 grams of carbohydrates, of which 8 grams only are soluble fiber. All the rest, 46 grams, is essentially sugar (it’s actually starch, but your digestive system breaks starch into sugars). A cup of milk (you gain nothing by drinking low-fat) contains 11 grams of sugars, which, together with oats, makes 57 grams. As a teaspoon of sugar is 4 grams, there was already more than 14 teaspoons of sugar in your porridge, not counting the cinnamon sugar you sprinkled on it.
            Regarding your low-fat milk, the story about saturated fats causing harm turned out to be completely false. The old paper about it, concocted in the 1950s, proved to be full of errors and omissions. New research showed saturated fats to be perfectly OK, while their removal from your diet and replacement with sugars leading to heart disease and obesity.
            So, looking at the numbers, I’d say, you should have served some eggs and bacon to your granddaughter, rather than oats.
            While you entertained your granddaughter with pretty costumes at the Princess Theatre, Hamas militants launched 150 rockets from Gaza, out of 10,000 they hold in the territory according to estimates. In response, Israel bombed Hamas sites and mobilized 40,000 reservists. In Somalia, militants stormed the presidential palace and killed 12 people. In the nearby Kenya, the same Al-Shabaab Somali militants killed 22 people in July and 48 in June. In Iraq, 2,417 people were killed in June, 799 more than in May, and the cemeteries ran out of place.
            In the meantime, militants trained in Syria’s bloodshed, many of them Australian, American and British citizens, are planning to return home to spread violence there, in New York, in London, in Melbourne. They may be better at it than the Benbrika and al-Shabaab sympathizers of the past.
            I would avoid trams and theaters, just so that I wouldn’t become a number myself.

          • margaret says:

            Haha touche! She did have scrambled eggs as well.

  • DaveW says:

    My impression was that demographics tended to play a strong role in traditional crime statistics. In particular the proportion of the male population in the 15-30 year old range is important because they commit the most crimes. Societal changes (e.g. opinions about and definitions of sexual crimes; strict enforcement of laws; insane prohibition laws) and technological advances (e.g. improved car theft devises; cameras everywhere; DNA evidence) are overlain on the basic demographic truth that young males commit most traditional crimes and among those young males a small proportion commit most of the crimes. I haven’t studied it though, just tried to pay attention like a good citizen is supposed to do, so I may be over-simplifying. Also, I have no understanding of white-collar crime statistics except that the party in power tends to get away with a lot.

  • Gus says:

    It *is* the same as with the weather. People have short memories. Many are young and have no memories at all. The older ones, who remember how it was 50 years ago can’t really compare if crime (or weather) was under-reported at the time and is over-reported today. Even if they remember well and objectively, we’re talking about natural fluctuations at the margin, almost impossible to measure without bias and other systematic errors, and it takes real research and in-depth statistical analysis to figure out if there has been any change at all and by how much.
    The demagogues know all this and peddle falsehoods to advance their own interests, whatever they may be, political, economic, financial.

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