Why is the definition and measurement of crime problematic?
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The term crime is not by any means easy to define. It does not have any simple or universally accepted definition in modern day society. Crime is the result of a complex social process, therefore not every criminal act is considered to be a crime. It has been said that a crime has only been committed when a court decides that one has occurred. For example a reported offence may not make it to trial due to a lack of evidence, so no further action is taken so it would not be considered a crime. This way of defining crime can be problematic as a victim may decide not to report a minor infraction when a conviction isn’t likely.
So would that mean although there had been an offence, there hadn’t been a crime? Legal tradition states that in order for an offence to be a crime there has to be “Actus Reus” and “Mens Rea”, with this is mind identical events may be classified as a crime, or otherwise depending on the circumstance of the situation in which it occurred. For example to shoot a man with the intention of killing him is a crime, this has the guilty act and the intention to commit said act. The same act committed by a person under duress could be questionable as they do not have the intention to cause harm. Another factor to consider when defining crime is whether or not the person knows what they are doing is wrong. For example the criminal age of responsibility in England is ten, this is to say a child under the age of ten is incapable of committing a crime as they are not responsible for their own actions. This however can depend on the severity of the crime. For example a child of four years old who was to take sweets from a shop would not be considered a criminal despite theft been against the law. However a teenager doing the same would be fully responsible for their actions as we would expect them to be aware of the law and the consequences.
We must also take into account whether or not the offender is of a sound mind. “In 1957 there was an Act of Parliament and it said that… ‘where a person kills, or is a party to the killing of another, he shall not be convicted of Murder if he was suffering from such abnormality of mind (whether arising from a condition of arrested or retarded development of mind, or any inherent causes, or induced by disease or injury) as substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts.” However this reasoning can cause problems in trials and can be used as a get out clause for many offenders. There is however, a definite sense of ambiguity surrounding these definitions.
Crime is a social construction and as individuals we each have a different interpretation of what constitutes an offence. Our society and culture are contributing factors in determine what we view as a criminal act or what is just seen as deviant behaviour. It is with the ambiguity surrounding the definition of crime that many problems can occur. For example, not all criminal acts are socially disapproved of. Such as the possession of illegal substances for personal use, although against the law is deemed by many as socially acceptable. This social understanding and defining of a certain crime can impair its severity and lead to a rise in offenders or a lack of reporting these offenders. How many of us would report the personal use of cannabis? With these factors in mind and an ever changing society is it ever possible to discuss crime as a definitive? It is with this ambiguity of defining crime that we find the measurement of crime problematic. In order for a crime to become a statistic there is as with defining crime a complex social process.
Firstly the act needs to be recognised as a crime by the victim and reported as such to the police. This in itself is problematic, as individuals we have different tolerances and attitudes towards crime and a minor act such as criminal damage may go unreported. Whereas more severe incidents such as burglary and incidents causing physical harm are more likely to be reported. This could lead to a misrepresentation of the figures as statistics would show higher occurrences of violent crimes. However it doesn’t just end with reporting the crime, in order for the police to record a crime and therefore it become a statistic they must decide that a crime has occurred.
The police may decide that there hasn’t been a crime or it may be that there has been a crime but there is no action to be taken. In this case the event would not be recorded. So with police recorded crime there is the issue of accuracy as the figures presented are likely to be much lower than the actual figures. Crime can also be measured through court and prison statistics. However not only do the police have to decide there has been a crime and arrest a suspect, the crown prosecution service has to determine whether the evidence is enough to get a conviction after which the jury must decide on a verdict. Offenders may be convicted of only one of many offences committed this can lead to a gross underestimate of actual crime rate figures.
With prison statistics we need to take into account that sentencing can be politically influenced, for example the government may decide to crackdown on certain crimes. This could lead to more offenders going to prison for a certain offence despite the level of its occurrence staying the same. This is where the British crime survey can help in gaining a better overall measurement of crime. The BCS is described as the most accurate way of recording crime as unreported incidents can be recorded. For example many victims of sexual abuse never come forward and report the incident, this is due to a number of reasons such as embarrassment, shame and repercussions from the offender, but these surveys can give us an indication of the number of offences that have not been recorded by the police. However we need to rely on the honesty and reliability of the victims.
The British crime survey only records crimes committed against individuals, so crimes against companies and victimless crimes are not recorded. It is with these points in mind that the definition and measurement of crime can never be absolute. Our culture and society determine how we understand and define crime and there is ambiguity surrounding these definitions, meaning that an accurate measurement of crime is unlikely.