Problems in defining crime - Forensic psychology

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Problems in defining crime
Forensic psychology


There are four issues that make crime difficult to define: (1) culture — definitions of crime vary across cultures; (2) age — the age of criminal responsibility varies from country to country; (3) context — changes to the legal system occur over time; and (4) circumstance — the situation in which an incident occurs can affect whether it is seen as a crime, for example a person’s intentions.

There are several ways of measuring crime. Official statistics are collected by The Office for National Statistics, which monitors crime rates in England and Wales in several categories, though some types of crime, for example drug trafficking, are difficult to measure. Police recordings of crime are also used in the official statistics. Victim surveys involve The Crime Survey for England and Wales, which asks people about their crime experiences to identify trends in criminal activity. Offender surveys such as The Offending Crime and Justice Survey record self-reported criminal activity, including alcohol and drug use. It is a longitudinal survey and so can identify trends and patterns of criminal activity. As it also measures unreported crimes, it can sometimes give a more accurate picture of criminal activity than official statistics. In Scotland an annual survey of prisoners and young offenders is carried out, which offers insight into why they may have committed criminal acts.

Focal study

Contemporary Statistics: The 14th Prisoner survey. For male offenders there was a decrease in drug use of 20 per cent. 45 per cent stated that they were drunk when committing their offence. This figure was higher for young offenders, with 68 per cent saying that they were drunk at the time. Young male offenders reported a high rate of alcoholism, with 90 per cent of them drinking more than 10 units a day when they were out of prison. One third of young male offenders were members of gangs and 67 per cent carried a knife. 44 per cent said they had witnessed violence in the home. For female offenders, 50 per cent reported being drunk when committing their offence. This was 5 per cent more than male offenders. 28 per cent reported that drinking alcohol affected their employment. 28 per cent were also worried that alcohol would be an issue for them when they were released.


• The Crime Survey for England and Wales (2014) estimated 7.3 million incidents of crime, a 14 per cent decrease from the year before, the lowest estimate since 1981 when the survey began. Despite overall figures decreasing shoplifting increased by 7 per cent and fraud by 17 per cent. Police recorded crime remained the same as the previous year. However, in previous years the amount of police reported crime had decreased year on year, which attracted criticism that the police were not recording crime accurately. If this was true, then the current figures show this decline has been addressed. It also seems that this change is in certain crime areas, such as violence and public order. Sexual offences recorded by the police increased by 20 per cent from the previous year. This is argued to be because of Operation Yewtree, which was investigating sexual abuse by celebrities. As the media coverage was widespread, more victims approached the police to report sexual offences.

Positive evaluation

Image The victim survey is updated annually to keep abreast of trends and the emergence of new crimes. This means that it attempts to include all possible crimes, even relatively new ones.

Image Asking offenders about offences committed gives a good picture of the reasons behind offending behaviour, which helps deployment of resources to areas which might prevent further crime.

Image The offender surveys give a fuller picture of the ’dark side of crime’ because offenders have knowledge of exactly what crimes might be occurring when. It is an official channel through to the criminal ’underworld’.

Negative evaluation

Image Offender surveys are self-report measures and therefore have problems of reliability. It could be argued that offender surveys are even more liable to inaccuracy due to the legal implications of giving truthful answers.

Image Figures from official statistics may be misleading, as some crime activity may be missing.

Image Victim surveys are notoriously poor in reliability. Some people are reluctant to report crime, may forget they have been a victim of a crime or may lie. This means a lot of crime goes unreported. Unreported crime is known as the ’dark side’ of crime and estimates of the amount this represents varies wildly, but is thought to be significant.

Practical application

Statistics relating to criminal activity can be useful in showing involved bodies where resources should be allocated and which criminal activities are becoming problematic and need more targeting and attention.