Girls and crime: media and statistics again

All day I’ve heard and seen headlines stating ‘crimes by girls rise by a quarter’. And all day they’ve been wrong.

The BBC said ‘The number of crimes committed by girls in England and Wales has gone up by 25% in three years, according to figures’. What they should have said is the ‘number of offences committed and resulting in a disposal by young females rose by 25%’ (the Youth Justice Board’s report). That’s not the number of crimes committed, but those detected by police, with enough evidence and a known suspect, and so a official caution or conviction in a court. Definitely not the same thing.

It might be because girls are committing more crime. Or it could be because the police are getting better at catching girls, or previously let them off with a ticking off (because they were female), or because the nature of their offending is changing, or because policing is changing, and so on. Indeed, it’s even possible that changes in the law mean that some things young women were more likely to do are now crimes, whereas ten years ago they weren’t: if you were to make playing football where there are ‘no ball games’ signs a criminal offence, the number of boys committing crime would increase.

Funnily the report begins the relevant section with:

‘It is important to note that apart from this table, all figures in this section represent the number of offences resulting in a disposal and not the number of young people offending.’

This was to point out that number of offences isn’t the same as offenders (as some offenders get caught more than once), but it also reminds us that many people offend without ‘resulting in a disposal’.

This reminds me of all the problems with police statistics and fear of crime. The more effective policing is, the worse crime seems. Even in a situation where crime is stable, or even falling, more effective policing means more crime detected and prosecuted. It’s only detected crime that makes the statistics or the news: if you’re robbed and don’t bother with reporting it to the police it won’t make the news. Furthermore, it’s prosecutions that make most headlines: there’s stuff to report when the story is being discussed in the courtroom. So the more criminals the police catch, the more crime there is on the telly and in the papers. And so improving the police increases fear of crime…

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Filed under News, Statistics and simplicity

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