4160.0 - Measuring Wellbeing: Frameworks for Australian Social Statistics, 2001  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 12/10/2001   
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Contents >> Chapter 9: Crime and Justice >> Measurement issues

Measurement issues


Because crime and justice are linked to underlying moral code the types of crime included within a legal system are subject to gradual change over time. Thus regulatory acts and criminal justice practices are continually being created, amended and extended in response to social change. While this is a natural result of the active dynamic between popular values and encoded law, it can present data collection, compilation and analysis challenges. Furthermore, while crime data from criminal justice agencies will be based upon legal definitions of crime, data collected via victimisation surveys may be based upon an individual's interpretation of crime. This potential disparity is most likely to affect the less serious end of the crime spectrum.


Much data about crime are based on reported offences, however, there are many circumstances in which the police are not informed of a crime. The type of offence committed, the victim’s perception of its seriousness, and the police's ability to take action have a bearing on whether a crime is reported. A person may consider an obscene phone too trivial to report. Much more serious crime such as a rape may go unreported because the victim is too traumatised to discuss details with the police or in court. Many crimes may be known only to the offender and the victim, for example, child abuse, and some crimes may go undetected by even the victim (fraud for instance). There are also many crimes that do not involve a victim, and are therefore, by their nature, more difficult to detect, e.g. crimes involving the use of illegal drugs, or speeding. However, information on the number of crimes not detected by or reported to police is vital to gaining a realistic understanding of the full extent and nature of crime occurring in the society. Information about a wider range of incidents than those dealt with by the criminal justice system can be obtained through crime victimisation surveys, and one of the purposes of household surveys of crime is to determine the reasons why some crimes are not reported.


Crime statistics can be incomplete in their representation of offender patterns and characteristics. This stems in part from the simple fact that criminal offenders are not always known, and are usually deliberately avoiding detection. Even where offenders are identified, less variety of demographic and socioeconomic data is currently collected about them than is collected about crime victims.


A core measurement issue, currently being addressed through framework development and statistical standards initiatives, relates to the need to coordinate the collection and compilation of crime and justice statistics across a wide range of organisations with differing functions and methods of collecting information.

For example, in addition to criminal justice agencies, data could be sourced from other systems for delivering justice (e.g. legal aid, conciliation and mediation services, crimes compensation and victim support services, and rehabilitation programs), or from government departments involved in monitoring laws and regulations (e.g. the tax office and Securities Commission). However, each of these organisations has a different function, and uses a different system to record and compile statistical data. The conceptual approach taken in ABS crime victim surveys (or those run by other agencies such as the Australian Institute of Criminology) will be different again.

Even within the criminal justice system information is sourced from different organisations (police, courts and corrections organisations). Different agencies within these organisations each have their own information systems with varying structures, capabilities and purposes. These systems have usually been designed principally to perform administrative functions and tend to be based on a variety of different software applications.

In addition, there are nine different systems of criminal law in existence in Australia. Each of the eight States and Territories has its own criminal justice system that responds to offences against State or Territory laws and which has the power to enact its own criminal law. Crime legislation differs from State to State, and State and Territory police jurisdictions vary somewhat in the data items they collect in their offence and apprehension reports. Even where they collect common data items, there may be variations in the way the item is defined or classified. Until fairly recently, the States had not adopted common statistical concepts, definitions and classifications, and even now these common definitions are only used for compiling national statistics.

The federal criminal justice system also operates in each State and Territory, responding to offences against Commonwealth laws and enacting laws and sanctions for criminal offences in relation to its responsibilities under the Constitution. State and Territory legislation covers most offences relating to persons (for example, murder and sexual assault), property (for example, theft and property damage) and regulation (for example, traffic violations). Commonwealth legislation relates primarily to matters such as trade and commerce, importation/exportation, taxation, defence and external affairs.

Despite these differences, interrelationships between the different sectors of the criminal justice system are such that activities undertaken by one agency impact on the services within a connected or related agency. In some instances, national standards such as the Australian Standard Offence Classification (ASOC - described below) can be used to overcome these differences and produce information on broad categories of offences that are defined in the same way across States.


The legislative and administrative differences outlined above can result in different data entities (e.g. court cases, convictions) being counted in slightly different ways as they move through the criminal justice system and change in nature or in name. This can hinder the ability of researchers to track individual cases through the criminal justice system in order to analyse cause and effect relationships. For example, it may be difficult to connect data about the number of crimes recorded with data about numbers of convictions or data about the sentencing outcomes of those convictions, to establish the patterns and outcomes of particular criminal incidents.

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