News National The truth about ‘rising’ crime rates

The truth about ‘rising’ crime rates

Changes in crime rates should be taken with a grain of salt. Photo: Getty
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In recent months, Victorians have been confronted with one alarming headline after the other about soaring crime in their state.

In neighbouring New South Wales, meanwhile, the public has been treated to a much rosier picture of declining offences.

In 2016, the number of recorded robberies in Victoria increased almost 25 per cent, while assaults and burglaries climbed 12 per cent and 10 per cent respectively, according to the Crime Statistics Agency in Victoria – a continuation of a steady rise seen in recent years.

Just across the border, recorded robberies and burglaries dropped 14 per cent and 6 per cent respectively, in the two years up until December 2016, while assaults remained stable.

It seems like a remarkable contrast for two jurisdictions with so many economic, cultural and demographic similarities. But the numbers may not be all they seem, experts say, highlighting the complicated nature of measuring crime and how easily public perceptions can differ from reality.

For a start, the figures rely on what is actually reported to the police.

“Police figures are always laced with difficulty in that they very much rely upon what people are actually choosing to report to police and what police are choosing to write down,” Rick Sarre, a professor of law and criminal justice at the University of South Australia, told The New Daily.

The numbers can also fluctuate wildly based on how police do their work.

“For example, if the police decide to have a crackdown on drunk-driving, they can put out a whole bunch of police patrols and they can double drunk-driving in Victoria overnight just by virtue of the way they are operating,” Prof Sarre said.

One way around these limitations is to ask people themselves whether they have been victimised by crime, something the Australian Bureau of Statistics does annually.

Going by those figures, Victoria’s crime woes look more like a blip than an enduring trend.

While burglaries and assaults increased slightly in the financial year 2015-16, according to the survey, robberies remained unchanged. More tellingly, all three categories fell substantially from the rates reported in 2008.

Crimes over the past two decades has declined.
Crimes over the past two decades has declined. Photo: Getty

In contrast to the headlines, NSW followed an almost identical pattern, with small increases in crime in the last financial year more than offset by the overall decline in the past eight years.

Fiona Dowsley, chief statistician at the CSA in Victoria, told The New Daily that year-on-year changes should not be assumed to be part of a broader pattern in crime.

“If you are talking about a long-term decline and then you have a bump in one year, I’d be waiting to see if that bump continues to go up to say that you’ve got a counter-trend, or whether it flatlines or whether it’s a bump on the road and it keeps going,” she said.

Ms Dowsley noted that certain crimes such as property offences tended to occur in clusters of related offences, resulting in spikes in the data.

“So for example, if I’m seeing thefts of number plates I’d expect then maybe to see other kinds of thefts,” she said.

Nationally, the clear trend over the past two decades has been less crime, a phenomenon seen in other western countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States. Although surveys show Australians to be increasingly concerned about crime, offences such as burglary and motor theft have declined by more than half since the start of the century.

“There have been very, very significant declines in both participation – that’s the prevalence, how many people get involved in crime – and the frequency of it,” Roderic Broadhurst, a professor of criminology at Australian National University, told The New Daily.

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