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The meaning of crime
The meaning of crime

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3.5 Evaluating claims, using evidence

Where does this exploration of evidence lead us? Can we decisively confirm or refute the common-sense stories of the crime problem in the UK?

Through an investigation of quantitative statistical evidence we certainly have some support for the claim that crime has risen considerably. But there are also doubts. The official statistics do not reflect unrecorded crime, and as one probes more deeply into the statistics we find that only certain types of crime have been on the rise. In any case, more qualitative evidence suggests that there are reasons for thinking that other factors (like the need for insurance claims) may account for some of the rise in recorded crime. There are also reasons for thinking that we may have collectively misjudged the levels of risk and danger that we are exposed to. Dips in the recorded crime rate in recent years have not as yet seen any perceptible decline in concern about crime.

Popular and respectable fears about crime in periods of rapid change, whether in the late twentieth century or in the eighteenth century, can give rise to a series of moral panics. While such panics may focus on particular aspects of society, from declining moral standards to increasing levels of crime, they can also be seen as metaphors for wider social disorder or social breakdown. In other words they can reflect widespread concerns about the nature of social change and the consequences that this has for particular groups and individuals in society.

Fears about crime, then, may mirror a sense of increased risk and uncertainty about other forms of social change that are only partially related to crime, if at all. Cohen's idea of moral panics suggests that public perceptions of crime and police response to crime may be shaped by the responses of the media and other social commentators. Media coverage may focus on the public arena and ignore the very high incidence of violent crime in the private arena of the home. Our fear of crime may in part be the result of our fascination with crime.

However, the case for seeing the crime problem purely as a matter of one long moral panic is not conclusive either. While mods, rockers and lager louts are the stuff of tabloid headlines it is a fact that the UK has more people in its prison system per head of population than any other Western European state; that levels of long-term drug addiction and associated patterns of crime are at an all time high; and however hidden they may have been in the past, we now as a society have to publicly confront the routine reality of widespread domestic violence, child abuse, racist attacks and murders.