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Crime takes many forms and can have a major impact on the wellbeing of victims, their families and friends, and the wider community. Those most directly affected may suffer financially, physically, psychologically and emotionally, while the fear of crime can affect people and restrict their lives in many ways. There are other costs as well, including the provision of law enforcement services by the police, courts and associated legal services, and corrective services. Although government agencies take on the major responsibility for law enforcement, many businesses and householders also bear costs in protecting against or paying for the consequences of crime. Such costs include those associated with taking out insurance policies, and the provision of surveillance and security equipment or services.
Measuring the full cost of crime might provide a single number approach to measuring progress in this area. However, there is no well established means of doing this nor are there comprehensive data sources. Although information about government expenditures on crime-related services provides some idea of the financial costs of crime to the community, the full costs to victims, or the subsequent costs to the wider community, might never be fully quantified. (SEE FOOTNOTE 1) This is partly because the full extent of illegal activity cannot be measured through available information systems. Indeed it is well known that many crimes are never brought to the attention of the police. Producing estimates of the costs of crime, even for those crimes that are identified, is also fraught with difficulties: each offence has different consequences for those affected and these can be difficult to value.
Another way, albeit limited, of looking at progress in this area of concern is to look at criminal offence victimisation rates based on police records. The focus here is on two of the more common categories of offences, namely 'unlawful entry with intent' and 'assault'. (The former refers to unlawful entry of a property with the intent to commit an offence, be it theft, property damage, or an offence against an individual.)
The prevalence of unlawful entry with intent has slowly increased through the 1990s. In 1993 the rate was 2,161 victims per 100,000 persons. It rose to 2,281 per 100,000 persons by 2000, a little less than the 1998 peak.
The prevalence of assault also rose through the 1990s. While assaults recorded by police were much less frequent than instances of unlawful entry with intent, the increase in assaults between 1995 and 2000 (the longest period for which comparable data are available) was substantial. Between 1995 and 2000 the assault rate rose on average by 5.5% per annum, from 563 to 737 victims per 100,000 persons. These rates may, however, significantly understate the extent of assault within the community, as data from the 1993 and 1998 crime victims surveys suggest that a large proportion of assaults (over two-thirds) are not reported to the police (see the commentary Crime: Looking more closely ).
The homicide rate (here based on cause of death statistics rather than police statistics) offers a longer term view of the prevalence of crime in Australia. While representing only a small fraction of overall crime, homicide (referring in this context to murder and manslaughter) is one offence category for which generally consistent statistics have been available for many years.
Homicide rates for the period 1915 to 2000 have fluctuated, often substantially from one year to the next, but overall within a relatively small range, i.e. between extreme lows and highs of 0.8 and 2.4 homicides per 100,000 persons per annum
(see graph below). Despite the annual fluctuations and some decades of relative stability, there were some longer periods over which the rates tended to rise and fall. Broadly described, these include a decline in the rates after the 1920s, down to lows recorded during the 1940s - around the time of World War II. After that, there was a long term upward trend which reached a peak of 2.4 homicides per 100,000 persons in 1988. After falling back to 1.8 homicides per 100,000 persons in 1992 the annual rates though the 1990s have fallen slightly further. In 2000 there were 313 homicides recorded in the cause of death statistics: 1.6 homicides per 100,000 persons. Similar data compiled from police records since 1993 indicate little change through the 1990s.(SEE FOOTNOTE 3)
SOME DIFFERENCES WITHIN AUSTRALIA
Crime rates tend to be higher on average in metropolitan centres than in non-metropolitan areas, but can vary considerably within those areas. Very high rates are observed in some small rural localities with high levels of disadvantage. National police statistics for 2000 show that crime rates relating to various offences also differ among Australia's States and Territories. For instance, as the supplementary commentary Crime: Looking more closely shows, New South Wales had the highest rate for robbery offences. Murder, assault and sexual assault were most prevalent in the Northern Territory, and property crimes, both 'unlawful entry with intent' and 'other theft' (which excludes motor vehicle theft) were most prevalent in Western Australia. In contrast, crime rates in Victoria and Tasmania tended to be below national rates for most offence categories.
FACTORS INFLUENCING CHANGE
Law breaking occurs within all societies, and all have systems of policing and justice to help minimise its spread and to maintain social order. Many factors influence a person's risk of criminal behaviour, and many also affect differences in crime rates among areas and changes in crime rates over time. Family factors, such as parental neglect, deviant parental behaviours and attitudes, conflict with parents and family disruption, are known to be strong predictors of juvenile involvement in crime.(SEE FOOTNOTE 4) And differences in crime rates between areas have been associated with poverty, unemployment and income inequality. Over time, increasing levels of drug dependence may have been a factor in increasing crime rates. The prevalence of crime may also depend on available opportunities and the size of the potential rewards, perhaps weighed against the risk of detection, apprehension and punishment. Common responses to increasing levels of crime include increasing prevention and detection activities, and increasing penalties, such as terms of imprisonment.
LINKS TO OTHER DIMENSIONS OF PROGRESS
In the absence of clear evidence one can only speculate as to whether changes in crime rates have been associated with other indicators of progress presented in this publication. There are strong links to levels of economic disadvantage when comparing crime rates among population subgroups, but the association between crime rates and changes in levels of unemployment over time are known to be weak.(SEE FOOTNOTE 5) It is believed that the effect of changes in levels of economic disadvantage on crime may be indirect, for example, by disrupting the parenting process and increasing the likelihood of neglect and abuse of children, making them more susceptible to the influence of delinquent peers.(SEE FOOTNOTE 5) Drug addiction, a major health concern, is also associated with criminal activity (both in terms of dealing with prohibited drugs and sometimes in having to commit other crimes to support what can be expensive drug habits). To the extent that the prevalence of crime affects people ’s trust of others there may also be a link between crime rates and levels of social attachment.
See also the commentaries Work, Economic disadvantage and inequality, and Social attachment.
1 See, for example, Walker J. 1992, "Estimates of the Costs of Crime in Australia", in Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, No. 39, Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC), Canberra. Also, for contemporary data on expenditures on policing and community safety and support services, see Steering Committee for the Review of Commonwealth/State Service Provision (SCRCSSP) 2002, Report on Government Services 2002, Vol. 1. Ausinfo, Canberra.
2 See Australian Bureau of Statistics 1999, Crime and Safety, Australia, 1998, Cat. no. 4509.0, ABS, Canberra for further details of differences in levels of reporting crimes to police according to types of offence.
3 The rate of murder and manslaughter offences recorded in national police statistics fluctuated between 1.8 and 2.0 per 100,000 persons between 1993 and 2000 with no apparent trend. See Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, Recorded Crime, Australia, 2000, Cat. no. 4510.0, ABS, Canberra.
4 Weatherburn D., 2001 What causes crime? (Crime and Justice Bulletin B54) at URL: http://www.lawlink.nsw.gov.au last viewed 20 February 2002.
5 Weatherburn D., Lind B., and Ku S. 2001, "The Short-Run Effects of Economic Adversity on Property Crime: An Australian Case Study", in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, Vol. 34 No. 2, pp. 134-148.