December 2, 2010 • 6:53 pm

The Times leader today delivered terrible news: “By the end of the 20th century, recorded crime was 57 times greater than it had been at the start. Even allowing for population growth it was 29 times greater. In the second half of the century, police detection rates halved. Conviction rates fell by a quarter. There had never been a better time to be a criminal.”

But the Times should have known better than to rely on these numbers

Graph of recorded crime 1900-2000

The curiosity about this graph is that for the first half of the century, crime rates apparently rise only slowly, with only one small spurt in the early 30s when changes were made to how crimes were recorded. 

It is less curious when you realise that further methodological changes were made repeatedly in the second half of the century, notably in the seventies, when the gradient of the graph seems to get steeper, and in 1998 when they caused the total to jump by half a million. As the Home Office says figures before and after 1998 cannot be compared, we put them on separate lines.

In fact, there are sixty nine footnotes to the recorded crime statistics, describing changes in what was being counted and how. Collectively they make comparisons over the whole century meaningless.

For example, the total crime statistic contains a fall of about 5,000 offences per year from 1961, when ‘Suicide (attempting to commit)’ ceased to be an offence.

The sad thing is that the Times is using bogus numbers to dramatise an apparently well-founded point.

There were about 300 murders each year at the beginning of the century, still 300 each year in the middle of the century, but 750 each year at the end of the century.

Murder has had largely the same definition in England and Wales since 1957. It has gone up one and a half times in a period when the UK population has gone up by only 16% (population figures for England and Wales were not available in time for publication).

The Times must surely to be right to suggest that this poses serious questions for policy makers both about its causes and about how to respond. Whether the government are right to argue that elected police commissioners are part of the solution is sure to be hotly contested by the Opposition over the next few months.

But why a newspaper of record felt the need to obscure that debate with tabloid exaggerations about 57-fold increases is for you to ask them.


Photo credit: A J Cann

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