Crime falls to record low - but who benefits?
Recorded crime in Scotland is at a 40-year low. It is, undoubtedly, a reassuring statistic and one that Scottish Government ministers habitually turn to whenever criminal justice policy comes under the microscope.
However, it begs the question – one which three academics from the University of Edinburgh have turned their attention to – of who is actually seeing the benefits. The answer is less reassuring.
The Applied Quantitative Methods Network (AQMen) Research Centre set out to map the relative risk of being a victim of crime over the course of falling crime rates.
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To this end, the three academics – among them Susan McVie, co-director of the renowned Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime – looked at changes in patterns of victimisation over time using Scottish crime survey data from 1993 to 2011. Their findings have been published in the latest issue of Scottish Justice Matters.
Four typical victim groups – ‘non-victims’, ‘one-off property victims’, ‘multiple mixed victims’ and ‘frequent personal victims’ - were found. The latter of these relates to around 1 in 200 of the Scottish population who experienced on average three incidents of crime in any given year.
Between 1993 and 2011, the ‘non-victims’ group – those who have a very low risk of experiencing crime – increased in size from 76 per cent of the population to 82 per cent. The two middle groups both saw a reduction.
Yet, the researchers found “no significant change over time” in the proportion of the population who made up the 'frequent personal victims' group.
What about the frequency of crime experienced by people in each of these groups? Again, there was “no discernible change” over time in the average number of incidents those in the final group experienced. “In other words, risk of frequent victimisation remained the same in this group,” note the three researchers.
In short, then, yes crime is falling amid fewer victims and a reduction in the number of incidents experienced overall. For the highest risk group, though, who experienced mostly violent crime, much remains the same.
“The fact that most people are less likely to be a victim of crime is hugely reassuring and should make us feel safer as a result,” write the researchers. “However, for a small proportion of Scottish society the risk of victimisation is as great or greater than it was 20 years ago and the range of crimes they experience is just as wide.”
For the approximate 220,000 people who fall into this ‘frequent personal victims’ category, this group’s share of all crime is estimated to have doubled since 1993. Successive Scottish Crime and Justice Surveys reporting the risk of being a victim is higher for adults living in the most deprived areas means that this group is likely to be concentrated in certain areas, as the researchers point out.
“The fact that one group of victims has not benefited from the overall crime drop and, indeed, has become more dissimilar to the rest of the population, is indicative of increasing inequality between victims and non-victims,” they write.
“This is concerning because it suggests that whatever factors have driven the crime drop they have not pervaded every part of our society. If this trend continues, crime will become increasingly concentrated in this group and the impact on the individuals involved is likely to be extremely damaging.
“The results of our analysis show that efforts need to be directed at those most at risk of victimisation if the crime drop is to be sustained.”
McVie and her colleagues will now seek to take their analysis a step further and use geographical data to discover whether certain areas contain higher concentrations of this victim group and subsequently the make-up of the group itself. Interventions, it is hoped, will then be better targeted as a result.
For now, with an election on the horizon in which justice policy is likely to feature, it is worth remembering that statistics lend themselves to different stories. Not all are necessarily reassuring ones.