Why might figures for recorded crime underestimate the actual amount of crime

'Crime' can be defined in two ways. There is the legal definition of crime, which states that crimes are acts which break the written law of the state. For example, stealing a jumper from a shop. There is also the normative definition of crime, which states that crimes are acts which break moral codes set by society, which can be formal or informal. For example, spitting. Legal and normative crime cannot be reconciled, as a lot of acts which are considered legal by the legal definition, are considered wrong by the normative definition.

What is, and what is not a crime is socially constructed by the members of a society in both definitions. Culture and time play a large part in deciding what is right and wrong. Over time, what was once considered acceptable may be considered wrong, and vice versa. This essay will look at how figures for crime over the years and at the present may have been underestimated. Many statistics will show an overall increase in crime over time. Crime has increased since the 1880s quite dramatically, with rapid acceleration in crime rates in certain eras.

Crimes recorded by the police 1878-2000 (Maguire, 1997, p158; Social Trends, 2002) show that between 1955 and 1964, crime rates doubled, and this occurred again in 1977 and 1991. Recorded crime 1945-2000 also shows a dramatic increase in offences leading up to 2000 (adapted from Social Trends, 2002). Specific types of crime such as theft and handing stolen property almost doubled between 1981 and 2000, going from 1,603 to 2,145 (in thousands). Whilst there was a drug offence increase from 0 to 113 (adapted from Social Trends, 2002, Table 9. 3).

There has also been an increase in violent crimes since 1999 to 2001, going from 581 thousand to 601 thousand (adapted from Social Trends, 2002). However, is all this information completely reliable? It does not take into account the changes in belief of what is and what is not considered a crime over time and how matters were dealt with. Certain crimes would have gone unreported many years ago. Child abuse and domestic violence just weren't talked about in a tight knit community. Where men dominated the household, women did not speak up against them, and so these crimes went unreported, and so are not included in official records.

This shows that we underestimate the levels of crime in earlier eras. Similarly, today, records also do not take into account unreported crime. Victim surveys suggest that official records greatly underestimate crime rates. In 1998, it was officially documented that 4,595,300 crimes took place. However, the British Crime Survey estimated that a total of 16,437,000 crimes occurred. This is a huge underestimation of crime. Whilst 97% of motor vehicle theft and 85% of burglaries were reported, only 26% of car vandalism was (Mirrles-Black et. Al 1998).

This also shows that records are not reliable and greatly underestimate certain areas of crime. The same survey discovered reasons for why many crimes weren't reported: 44% did not report a crime as they thought it was not serious enough; 33% did not report as they claimed that there was little the police could do about it; 22% believed the police would not be interested in their report; 11% thought they could deal with the matter better than the police could; 4% found it inconvenient to tell the police; and another 4% were also fearful of reprisals.

This also shows that many offences go unreported, thus resulting in an underestimation of crime. There is also evidence to suggest that people themselves underestimate the likelihood of crimes occurring against them. People most at risk of street crime believed themselves not to be at risk. Only 1% of men between 16 and 30 felt unsafe on the streets. The actual percentage of street crime against this group was 7. 7% (Muncie and McLaughlin, 1996, Table 1. 5). This group were almost the most at risk from street crime out of any group and they also estimated themselves at extremely unlikely to be at risk.

This shows that many people underestimate crime that could happen to them. In conclusion, there are two main reasons why figures for recorded crime may underestimate the actual amount of crime. Firstly, in the past many crimes went unreported due to the traditional roles of people. And secondly, people may find reasons for not reporting crime nowadays, such as inconvenience and lack of faith in the police. So, overall we can say that figures do regularly underestimate rates of crime.