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.