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Can Crime Be Measured in a Valid and Reliable Way?

In this essay it will be shown how crime in this day and age is measured and to what extent the different methods are valid and drawing from this, how reliable such methods are. For the most part, there are 3 major or respected methods used by most countries in determining the nature and extent of crime. and from these methods it will be demonstrated that there is no accurate way of assessing crime in a “reliable and valid way” (Crime and crime prevention Module 1, 1 – 8). Although these methods of crime measurement all have the same objectives, the end results can differ a great deal. Each method of measure is accomplished by different institutions (Government, social/market research companies and independent companies) that, in turn, have their own methodologies and procedures of gathering information. A brief description of these methods will be portrayed and the various arguments for and against that are inherent with them. In doing so, it will be clear to the reader that these methods are far from clear and as such the emanating results are often blurred.

Before attempting to describe the various crime measurement methods, one should take a step back and define first what crime is? Without a solid understanding of this, it would be illogical to proceed and as such an erroneous picture of the methods would result.
In the Oxford Dictionary crime is defined as:
“noun 1 an offence against an individual or the state which is punishable by law”.
It is only when one delves deeper into this, that the true meaning becomes blurred as to the social and legal definitions. In certain countries and even across states, crimes can be interpreted differently as well as across time, crime can take on a different definition (Crime and crime prevention Module 1, 1 – 4). Only when one grasp this, can we then start to measure the extent of crime “in a reliable and valid way” (Crime and crime prevention Module 1, 1 – 6).
Throughout history measuring crimes rates, interpreting them appropriately, has been an uphill battle ever since the first crime statistics were gathered in the early Victorian times. As mentioned earlier, there are 3 ways of measuring crime the oldest being that of official crime statistics generated by the government, with this, one must add the two more recent methods, crime victimisation surveys and self report surveys (Crime and crime prevention Module 1, 1 -8).

The most commonly cited measurement of crime are those amassed by official sources, authorities such as law enforcement, criminal justice system and other government services.
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the North American Review.
These efforts produce data on victims and offenders, the figures that transpire from such data gives an indication of whether crime is on the rise or the decrease. But as the above cited quote mentions, there are many preconceptions in such data interpretation.
One of the positive points in such a method of crime measurement is that it is a representative sample, this takes into account all reported crimes across the spectrum. This can then be used for different crime purposes i.e. geographically, trends. The recent advent of information technology has spurned an even greater use of such data, statistics such large-scale victim surveys (BCS) and data bases of offenders (Maguire et al 2007, p 246). Due the fact that such data is available over longitudinal periods, gaining accurate data such as dates and offences etc are possible (Crime and crime prevention Module 1, 1 -9).
Not all categories of offences are included in government figures, ‘indictable offences” (Home Office 2001: 244) are omitted, this leads to underreporting therefore a lack of valid results. These results show an incorrect picture of crime trends in the total amount of crime (Maguire et al 2007, p 258).
“As crime has become a highly charged political issue…. the release of statistics tends to look no further than the raw figures….” (Maguire et al 2007, p 293).
The recent political spin that has been cast on crime statistics has cast doubt on the reliability of such figures, only recently figures were dismissed by the shadow home secretary Chris Grayling, as a government sponsored ‘”opinion poll” and “likely to damage public trust in official statistics” ( These statistics portrayed a drop in crime rates although actual figures gave a more accurate picture which showed an actual rise in violence (Maguire et al 2007, p 253). Recent opinion polls state that the public is more and more mistrustful of such data, public opinion is that of rising crime as opposed to the official picture of crime reduction (
The downside of this method is that it only reports those crimes that are reported, the differences between official and actual offending is commonly known as the ‘dark figure’. Victims may decide whether or not to report crimes depending on the circumstances, such offences such as sexual, race and intra-familial (Kirk, 2006; MacDonald, 2002, 1-9).
The end point is that crime statistics and the data that is extracted provide a disproportional picture of crime, the bulk of which remains hidden from view.
The second method is that of victimization reports, this takes the form of interviewing those who were either victims or those who witnessed a crime. These types of surveys were targeted mainly to uncover and bring to light the ‘dark figure’ of crime, the difference between official and actual offending rates (Crime and crime prevention Module 1, 1-9). Survey methods were firstly proposed as a way of measuring crime due to the dissatisfaction between official statistics and other local crime statistics This aimed to redress those hidden crimes and thus “calibrating” (Tonry et al, 1983, p 7) official crime figures and in so rendering them more precise.
Offence totals

BCS estimate Police recorded Ratio Police : BCS

Totals 8,558,000 2,551,000 1 : 3.4

Table 10.4 (Maguire et al 2007, p 272).
Victimization surveys can render data more confidential as opposed to reporting such crimes to the police; fear and embarrassment are much less likely to play a part when participating in the interviews thus rendering the statistics and therefore crime measurement more precise.
Since the inception of the British Crime Survey (BCS) in the early ‘80’s this form of crime measurement has seen its recorded data explode through various sources, locally as well as special surveys of under reported crimes (Maguire et al 2007, p 246). More ‘hidden’ types of crime become visible and as such a more accurate picture is available, domestic violence, ‘white collar crimes’ these all form part of the ‘victimless’ or ‘consensual’ crimes (Maguire et al 2007, p 246). In essence this form of measurement probably provides the most reliable measure of the extent of victimisation and of national trends over time.
According to the BCS (2008/09), crime surveys provide the most reliable measure of the extent of victimisation and of national trends. This paints a much different picture as per the comments below, this in turn shows the lack of a viable crime measurement method.
“In 1981, fewer than 3 million offences were officially recorded, compared to the 11 million reported within the BCS” (Crime and crime prevention Module 1, 1 – 16).
The above statement clearly shows the enormous gap between the official figures and those gleaned through victimization surveys.
Like all methods of crime measurement, victimization surveys have their limitations too. They are expensive and due to this can only cover a limited amount of people therefore not representing a truer and larger spectrum of the targeted audience.
To add further to the unreliability of such a method, the methodology employed by surveys leads to a lot of biases (Tonry et al, 1983, p 24-25), underreporting, response biases, interview methods and other missing variables. The methodology also precludes certain crimes from being detected as the sampling procedures do not cover certain groups in society, i.e., the homeless, incarcerated personnel, military or student accommodation (Crime and crime prevention Module 1, 1-16).
The third most common method in measuring crime is that of “Self reported Offending”, this takes the form of interviews but from an offenders point of view rather than being victim focused (Maguire et al 2007, p 284).
The previous two methods paint a picture of the actual extent of crime at that moment in time, compiling both official and victim figures to paint a larger picture. The self-report survey is typically administered to high school students, although sometimes juvenile samples are involved. Other samples have involved incarcerated prisoners as well as attempts to find uncaught criminals. Regardless of the sample population, the purpose is to get respondents to read the questions and mark down how many times they have committed a serious offense and gotten away with it.
This has mainly been used in particular amongst younger male offenders as this is the demographic peak at which offending occurs ((Crime and crime prevention Module 1, 1-11), this form can add further data to the crime figures as well as showing both crime trends and patterns.
In general, self-reporting identifies more offenders than the official crime statistics as well as different types of offender. This form of data measurement has therefore brought into question many of the more traditional explanations of crime which are mostly based on police records and official statistics (Maguire et al 2007, p 286).
This method can give individual-level data about the attitudes, behaviors, and extent of involvement of individual delinquents. Comparative research shows correspondence between self-report studies and other studies.
A lack of reliable answers from offenders due to exaggerations, embarrassment and basic lack of memory of the actual facts, will render such methods highly biased. The interviewer themselves may not have access to certain offenders and this will lead to a prejudiced picture. However as such surveys are generally random, they fail to uncover the more serious offenders. One of the more positive methods is that of computer-audio surveys with which the Offending, Crime and Justice Survey (OCJS) is presently experimenting, it’s main aim is to ‘explore’ more of the anti-social behaviour of younger offenders which are not covered by the previous methods of measurement (Maguire et al 2007, p 288).
The methods employed by such surveys have brought into the spotlight more antisocial which when added, clear the distinction between “crime and delinquency’ (Maguire et al 2007, p 289).
Are there reliable and valid ways to measure crime? The answers are both yes and no, the three methods have been shown with all the positive and negative standpoints. Although the 2 main ones complement each other, it is striking the differences between them in quantitative terms. The use of computer generated data bases will enhance certain methods giving a clearer picture, but only so far.
As all the different organisations involved in crime information collection advance, the legal and social definition of crime too plays a part as the geographical and spatial factors will obscure the whole equation.
In conclusion, governments, police and criminologists will continue to use official statistics as a benchmark for measuring crime that serves to protect society. Use of all three methods is the best way in getting an accurate view of criminal activities. The use of any one method by itself will only highlight the flaws mentioned previously and lead to an imbalanced picture.