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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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.