How are crime levels measured?

There are two principal sources of information about crime trends in Britain: the British Crime Survey (BCS) and the officially recorded (police-based) statistics. Despite considerable public concern about crime, trends since 1997 show a clear downward trend. The BCS provides estimates of crimes reported to the police as well as crimes that remain unreported. (The survey asks a large sample of the general population to state any crimes of which they have been a victim within the previous twelve months.)

Victims are also asked whether they reported incidents to the police. The BCS does not provide a complete count of crime – were such an enterprise even possible – but it provides a reasonable guide to crimes committed against individuals and their personal property. In fact it is considered now by most criminologists to be a more reliable indicator of most, but not all criminal behaviour.

Have crime levels risen?

According to the BCS, rates of most crimes have fallen since the mid-1990s, and the declines in burglary and vehicle crime rates have been particularly marked. This – rather optimistic – view of crime has been the subject of much political and media debate, as recorded crime statistics tell a different story. The proportion of crime reported to the police by victims has remained stable since 1997.

Police recording practices have fluctuated considerably since 1997. The police started to record proportionately fewer crimes in the early 1990s – probably responding to Michael Howard’s performance management regime, which placed considerable emphasis on meeting crime reduction targets. This trend was reversed from 1998 onwards when a greater emphasis was placed on more comprehensive recording. The upward turn in trends in police- recorded crime from 2001/02 to 2003/04 is therefore largely illusory.

Can gang crime be stopped?

In contrast to violence associated with binge-drinking, these forms of violence are not crimes of affluence. Whilst it is something of a sociological cliché to say so, violence can serve as a means of securing status and respect within such sub-cultures, whose members have limited access to more conventional forms of achievement. Nor is there any reason to think that alcohol or drugs serve as facilitators. Crimes of this sort are more of a political challenge than alcohol-related violence.

There is some scope to change young people’s behaviour in carrying knives – which will reduce the severity of injuries arising from violent assaults – but the problem will remain that groups of young men excluded from the opportunities of mainstream society tend to play life by a different set of rules. In this case, the solution is to be found in strategies targeting those groups, typically in poor inner city areas and often from minority ethnic groups, who have prolonged experience of social exclusion.

What do the public believe?

The public do not generally believe that crime is declining – most people perceive crime rates to have increased over the past few years at the national level, although perceptions are more accurate when people are asked about their own neighbourhoods. The misperception about crime trends is not an exclusively British phenomenon – members of the public in all Western nations tend to see crime rates as constantly increasing, despite reliable evidence to the contrary.

Why has knife crime increased?

Knives are related to gangs, and there appears to have been an increase in the participation of young males in gangs in recent years. The increase in the number of knives in young peoples’ possession is a little harder to document. One key element is the increase in the number of searches of young people by police officers.

Throughout 2008 knife crime has been increasingly visible in the media. There have been several high-profile murders, mainly involving boys and young men. Often, but not exclusively, victims and offenders have been members of rival gangs, or at least share a gang culture associated with deprived groups in inner cities.

Some victims, however, appear to have been caught up in violent confrontations randomly, and in some cases, fights that might have ended simply with a bruise or two now result – because of the presence of knives – in severe injury or death.

What is the role of drugs in youth crime?

Illicit drug use has grown in most industrialised countries since the 1970s. There are signs that some forms of drug use have peaked, but it is unquestionable that use of drugs of dependence, notably heroin and cocaine, are now at a very much higher level than forty years ago.

It is also clear that there is a strong association between dependent drug use and acquisitive crime. The literature suggests that ‘lifestyle’ and ‘sub-cultural’ factors are important in explaining why those who try illicit drugs are also more likely to get involved in other forms of law-breaking.

The search for novelty and excitement and the enjoyment of the rewards of risk-taking are defining aspects of youth culture. It is hardly surprising that large minorities of the population engage in the – relatively controlled – risks of both recreational drug use and minor crime at some stage of their adolescence and young adulthood.