Not Saussure

January 4, 2007

Mail readers — before you rush out to commit a crime, please read this…

Filed under: Panic, press, Spin — notsaussure @ 11:12 pm

The Daily Mail recently published the alarming news — well, not alarming to potential criminals, I suppose –that Only 1 in 100 reported crimes end in prosecution. This is extraordinary misreporting, even by the Mail’s standards.

According to table 1.1 in Criminal Statistics 2005 (which are the most up-to-date figures available, for the financial year 2005 to 2006, so I assume that’s what the Mail’s on about) the number of notifiable offences recorded by the police was 5,557,000, about 1% down on the previous year. Notifiable offences means indictable offences — i.e. tryable only by the crown courts or ‘either way’ offences (tryable by either the crown courts or the magistrates), plus a few closely associated summary offences. The number ‘detected’ (cleared up one way or the other, be it by prosecution, caution, fixed-penalty notice or detected but not proceed with because the suspect died or the complainant withdrew charges or whatever) was 1, 516,000, or 27%.

Of the notifiable offences reported to the police, 13% ended up in the courts, according to the same set of figures. Six percent resulted in cautions, 2% in their being ‘taken into consideration’ (i.e. they’re not proceed with separately, but the defendant asks the court to take them into account when sentencing him) and 7% were dealt with in other ways (which includes formal warnings for cannabis possession, penalty notices for disorder and ‘non-sanction detections’, which is where the complainant withdraws charges and the police can’t proceed or the defendant dies or something). I realise this adds up to 28% rather than 27%; both figures are from the same table, and it’s not wholly clear what’s happened — I suspect a rounding error somewhere.

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that about 13% of notifiable offences reported to the police end up in court. Of crimes detected, about half do. Neither looks anything like 1%.

How do the Mail arrive at their figures? I can’t quite follow exactly how they’ve stitched them together; part of it is that they move seamlessly from what they describe as ‘The number of criminals caught and dealt with by police rose by six per cent year-on-year from 1,428,000 to 1,516,000’ (it isn’t — it’s the number of crimes detected) to

Yet the number of offenders charged and sent before the courts – magistrates or crown courts -fell by eight per cent from 453,000 to 423,000.

Which is true as far as it goes, but rather ignores the facts that people frequently go before the courts charged with more than one offence and that more than one person can be charged with a single offence. I won’t go into the way it’s worked out and broken down for various statistical purposes, partly because it’s horribly complicated and partly because I don’t fully understand it, but certainly you’re comparing apples and pears when you try to talk about both crimes reported and criminals prosecuted.

They further muddy the waters with the observation that

More than 80,000 court cases were dropped or discontinued due to suspects or witnesses failing to show up, and the number actually sentenced in courts dropped five per cent from 317,000 to 306,000 – less than one per cent of the estimated 33million-plus crimes each year.

No. The ‘more than 80,000’ refers, as far as I can make out, to all proceedings — not cases — dropped or terminated for whatever reason. This certainly includes suspects or witnesses failing to show up. It also includes charges being withdrawn because the CPS has decided there’s insufficient evidence, or the case is ended at the committal proceedings in the crown court for the same reason, or because they’ve arrested someone else for the offence, or — and this is very frequent — the defendant has pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, or some of the charges on the indictment and the CPS have decided not to go with the others. And, indeed, the number sentenced in courts is also affected by the number of people acquitted (who can be co-defendants on the same or a related charge where another defendant is acquitted — e.g. X is convicted of burglary but Y, who is found in possession of the stolen goods, is acquitted of handling them because the jury isn’t sure he knew they were stolen).

The way the Mail actually reaches the 1 in 100 is by taking not ‘reported crimes’ but

the number actually sentenced in courts dropped five per cent from 317,000 to 306,000 – less than one per cent of the estimated 33million-plus crimes each year.

It’s reached the estimate of ’33million-plus’ by taking not ‘reported crime’ as the term is normally understood but ‘crimes reported in the British Crime Survey’, which is a survey of crimes people say they’ve been victims of, whether or not they’ve reported them. This was around 11 million incidents; the reasons crimes don’t get reported varies, but the most common reasons are either that the victim didn’t think it was worth reporting (not serious enough, no chance of finding the culprit etc) or wanted to deal with the matter himself. The Mail then triples this 11 million because

the British Crime Survey counts only a third of all crimes as it ignores all offences against businesses including shoplifting, “victimless” crimes such as drug possession and any offences committed against under-16s.

Well, yes, but what of it? CPS can hardly be blamed for not proceeding against anyone for committing of offences that no one’s reported to the police, whether it’s because the victim regards it as too trivial or the supermarket knows it’s losing stock from shoplifting or druggies aren’t turning themselves in or the Daily Mail isn’t calling in the police when one of their reporters is detected fiddling his expenses.

One bit of the report the Mail doesn’t reproduce, for some reason, is this, from the chapter on Perceptions of Crime (p 33):

• Despite the number of crimes estimated by the BCS falling in recent years, comparatively high proportions of people still believe the crime rate to have risen. People have more positive perceptions of crime in their own area than nationally; 63 per cent of people thought that crime in the country as a whole had increased compared with 42 per cent who thought crime in their local area had increased.
• Readers of national ‘tabloids’ were around twice as likely as those who read national ‘broadsheets’ to think the national crime rate has increased ‘a lot’ in the previous two years (39% and 19% respectively).

They also note (p 36) that in previous years,

The factors most strongly independently associated with perceiving [erroneously]  that the national crime rate had increased [included]

• Having no or low educational qualifications.
• Reading a newspaper other than the Guardian and Independent, or not regularly reading any newspaper.


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1 Comment »

  1. Great post, I despair when reading articles like this.

    When I speak to people about the justice system, the one thing that comes through is a staggering ignorance of the legal process. Whether because of urban myth, TV or newspapers, most people don’t know basic facts about standards of evidence, the appeals process, sentencing guidelines or the principle of presumed innocence.

    When a very high profile murder case was being tried some years ago, just about everyone who asked me about it came out with some variation on “Of course he’s guilty, why don’t they just convict him?”.

    Not the kind of thing to inspire confidence in opinion polls.

    Comment by Flying Rodent — January 5, 2007 @ 7:49 am


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