1234.0 - Australian Standard Offence Classification (ASOC), 1997  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 14/10/1997   
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The Australian Standard Offence Classification (ASOC) has been developed for use within Australia for the production and analysis of crime and justice statistics. It replaces the Australian National Classification of Offences (ANCO) which was released in 1985.

The objective of the classification is to provide a uniform national statistical framework for classifying offences for use by justice agencies and other persons and agencies with an interest in crime and justice issues.

The ASOC is to be progressively introduced into ABS statistical collections. It is anticipated that key agencies within the crime and justice system will introduce it into their data collections on reported crime, court activities and corrections as soon as is practicable. In the course of implementing the ASOC, each State and Territory will need to undertake a detailed mapping program that will link every individual criminal offence within their statutes to a single ASOC category. When completed this linkage will be compiled into a single detailed concordance by the ABS.

In the development of the ASOC considerable emphasis has been placed on the need to present an up-to-date reflection of the various criminal statutes. A maintenance program is proposed, aimed at ensuring that the ASOC does not become outdated. It is believed that this approach will lead to significant improvements in the comparability of crime statistics on both a State and national level.

Historical development

In June 1980 the Draft Australian National Classification of Offences was widely circulated and subsequently put into use by various agencies, particularly in the preparation of court statistics. This use, and the resulting feedback from the cooperating agencies, greatly assisted the ABS in developing the 1985 version of the ANCO.

The purpose of the ANCO was to provide a universal hierarchical framework, capable of being applied at various levels, for classifying offences for statistical purposes. It was envisaged that agencies such as the police, courts, legal aid and corrections would, along with the ABS itself, be the major users, though it was acknowledged that some of the lower level categories within the classification would not apply to all agencies.

Over time the number of legislative changes and additions to the criminal law, in conjunction with the identified deficiencies in the ANCO, reduced the classification's usefulness for the production and analysis of comparable national crime and justice statistics. As a consequence the ABS commenced a review of the classification in 1995.
The principal objectives were to:

      • improve and update the relationship between the revised classification and the criminal legal codes in the various Australian jurisdictions;
      • maintain a degree of compatibility between the existing and new classifications; and
      • make its use and/or application more consistent by eliminating the need for users to develop their own individual interpretations.

Approaches to the classification of offences

During the review of ANCO several possible approaches to the classification of offences were identified and considered. These included:

      • categories based on legal distinctions;
      • categories based on offence seriousness;
      • categories based on 'behavioural' characteristics of the offence;
      • categories based on characteristics of the victim; and
      • categories based on significant policy or research issues.

Categories based on legal distinctions

A legal classificatory framework is based on distinctions between offences where the legal elements of the offences are different. These may include distinctions embodied in legislation, or distinctions in case law or legal procedure. In general, categories based on legal distinctions are meaningful from the point of view of criminal justice system practitioners: the police, courts and corrective services.

A legally-based framework would, however, have limitations:

      • It would require that for the major offences, legally-based definitions must be developed. This could compound rather than ease the problem of developing ASOC groups which are both detailed and comparable across jurisdictions. There are significant variations in the way that legislation prescribes apparently similar offence types in different States, Territories and in Commonwealth law.
      • It would not adequately take certain important uses of ASOC into account, such as for policy or criminological research or for police intelligence gathering, all of which require categorisations which are not reflected in legal distinctions.

Categories based on offence seriousness

There were a number of possible approaches based on the concept of offence seriousness. These could take the form of an offence 'hierarchy', in which legally defined offences are ordered according to their degree of seriousness. Seriousness can be ranked in terms of the severity of the maximum statutory penalty, the average penalty applied, or some measure of perceived seriousness. Alternatively, the concept could be applied by identifying various characteristics of offences to be used as the basis for differentiation on the basis of seriousness. Such characteristics could include whether or not violence is associated with the offence, whether or not a weapon was used, or whether or not other 'aggravating' characteristics such as the nature of the relationship between the offender and victim were present.

The principal difficulties associated with a classificatory approach based on offence seriousness are:

      • The approach relies on the ability to determine the most serious of any given pair of offences using an agreed set of criteria to define seriousness. Within Australia there is substantial inter-jurisdictional variation in the maximum penalties for offences and in the average penalty applied. For any single offence, there can be a great deal of variation between the minimum, maximum and average penalty applied, and any average could therefore provide a misleading measure.
      • Other methods such as those involving public perceptions of offence seriousness are even more problematic. They are difficult to determine initially, can vary considerably across geographic regions and within jurisdictions and can alter dramatically as a consequence of even a single, well publicised case.
      • Ranking offence groups and subgroups by seriousness could lead to inconsistencies within the classification structure. For example, since arson would be ranked much higher than removing boundary markers, the existing ANCO grouping of property damage could not be maintained in the ASOC. Groupings based solely on offence seriousness would, on the other hand, lead to non-intuitive groupings, with aggravated sexual assault, attempted murder and drug importation all conceivably falling within the same broad category.

One option considered was to use offence seriousness as a secondary criterion to assist in the selection of offence characteristics which can themselves be used to develop the framework. Thus offences could be separated into violent and non-violent offences, those involving and not involving a weapon or those exceeding or not exceeding a property value threshold to separate property offences. Seriousness in this more general sense has been incorporated in the ASOC.

Categories based on behavioural characteristics

Behavioural approaches to the classification of offences rely on defining offence groupings in terms of the behaviour associated with the offence. For example, all sexual offences would be grouped together, all violent thefts would be grouped together, as would all assaults, and all offences involving illicit drug use. It could be seen that the legislative framework described above is a variety of this behavioural type of framework. A purely behavioural framework would not, however, be limited to or restricted by legislative distinctions, and other aspects of offences which are deemed to be important can be included. Thus, shoplifting, which is not a separate offence under legislation, could be distinguished from other forms of theft. Similarly, robbery involving a firearm could be distinguished from other forms of armed robbery.

The principal issues with a strict behavioural approach involve determining which elements of behaviour are important for the purpose of the classification and assigning relative priorities when more than one important element of behaviour is involved.

Categories based on victim characteristics

Some important distinctions between offences are based on the characteristics of the victim, for example the victim's age or mental state. Victim-based distinctions could be applied to property-related offences, such as when one wishes to distinguish between thefts from businesses as opposed to private individuals. Many victim-based distinctions are also the basis of legal distinctions (as in the case of sexual assault offences), or are relevant to distinctions based on the behavioural elements of the offence or offence seriousness. Thus, a classification based on legal, behavioural or seriousness distinctions also incorporates many of the important victim characteristics.

Categories based on significant policy or research issues

In some cases, it is important to distinguish between offences in a manner that allows information to be derived for policy development, evaluative, research or monitoring activities. For example, an important issue in the categorisation of firearms offences could be the nature of the weapon involved. To the extent that policy or research activities could be associated with the creation of new legislation or the amendment of existing laws, the policy or research driven classificatory structure could impose distinctly different requirements to a legal one. The principal drawback to categories based on policy or research issues is that these issues are relatively volatile, and a classificatory structure that reflects significant issues at one point in time could quickly become outdated.

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