7 Great Wonders of the Criminological World: Why We Believe in Myths and Monsters, not Methods and Measurements

This post has been contributed by Mr Steven Hutchinson, Module Convenor for Introduction to Criminology.

It’s a simple if startling fact that the safest people in the world are also the most afraid. And as it turns out, the safer we make ourselves, the more fearful we become.

Criminologists know this well: for many years now, as the crime rate has continued to go down, people’s fear of crime has continued to go up. To make this even more baffling, the things that we are the most afraid of are the things that are least likely to harm us.

In fact, there are at least 7 Great Wonders of the Criminological World; widely held myths about crime that leave us wondering why people believe in myths and monsters, not methods and measurement.

Myth 1: Crime is rising.

In 2019, 82% of people surveyed inEngland and Wales believed that crime was going up nationally. This is an increase from previous years: in 2016 it was 60% of the population; in 2017 it was 69%; whilst in 2018 it was 78%. More and more people, year after year, think crime is rising.

It isn’t.

Publicly available statistics show that after a peak year in 1995 – at the end of a decades’ long increase in crime – the crime rate has fallen steadily. In fact, in many countries where national surveys are carried out, whilst property crime rose from the 1960’s through the mid-1990’s, since then crime overall has been trending downward steadily, year after year. This decline is mirrored in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and across Europe.

Myth 2: Terrorism is one of the gravest threats we face.

Terrorism is a great fear in western societies. Worries about radicalisation shape domestic policy, concern with terrorist groups abroad determines foreign policy and international relations, and consistent reports that the threat remains ‘Severe’ and even ‘Critical’ lead to funding packages in the billions.

Yet figures from 2000 to 2019 show that terrorists kill, on average, about 5.4 people every year in England and Wales. (And account for about 0.01% of all deaths in in the United States). More people die every year in England from traffic accidents (about 3,000/year), the seasonal flu (between 2,000 and 17,000), and sudden death accidents at work (about 300/year). In fact, more people die from food poisoning (about 200/year), hot water scalding (about 120/year), falling out of bed (about 20/year), bee stings (about 8), and even lightning – random lightning strikes in England kill about as many people as terrorists do; about 5 every year.

Myth 3: Violent crime is everywhere and ever-increasing.

People tend to have a similar preoccupation with violent crime. Asked about their views of violent crime, the common perception in England (especially in large cities) is that it is fairly common, is increasing, and has been rising steadily year after year.

According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) however – the pre-eminent measure of crime – only about 1.5 to 1.7% of adults are victims of violent crime in any given year. Of the 1.7% who were victimised in 2017, 0.9% were victims with no injury sustained, 0.4% were victims with a minor wound, and 0.4% were victims of violent crime with a minor injury. Put simply, violent crime is one of the least common forms of crime. And violent crime with any sort of injury is one of the smallest categories of crime we measure.

Myth 4: Strangers are the most dangerous. Especially for women.

There is a widespread belief – bolstered by popular culture and the media – that strangers pose the greatest risk to us, whether they’re crossing our path late at night, bumping into us on public transportation, or standing close to us inside an elevator. This is particularly true for women, who are often told that it is the strange, unknown man on the street or in the public park who is most likely to assault them.

But this isn’t true.

Men, women and children are in fact more likely to be victimised by someone they know rather than someone they don’t.

There were 671 homicides in England and Wales in 2019. Of these, female victims were most likely to be killed by a partner, ex-partner or a family member. Male victims were most likely to be killed by a friend or acquaintance. And children were most likely to be killed by a family member or a friend. Homicides committed by strangers are statistically quite rare.

The same holds true in relation to sexual assault. According to Crime Survey figures from 2016 to 2018, 53% of rapes were perpetrated by a partner or ex-partner, whilst 10% were perpetrated by a family member. This means that only 37% of rapes were carried out by someone who was unknown to the victim. Statistically speaking, women are in more danger from their partners, ex-partners and friends than they are from strangers.

Myth 5: Unknown paedophiles hiding in the park or at the fairground pose the greatest risk to our children.

Sensational cases like Jimmy Savile, Richard Huckle, and the 7 members of the UK paedophile ring from 2015, are often used to bolster the perception that strange and unknown paedophiles represent the greatest risk to our children.

Statistically speaking, this isn’t true.

Contact sexual abuse of a child is most likely to occur, not in a day-care centre, at the park, or on a playground, but in the child’s home (37%) or in someone else’s home (40%). In addition, victims of child sexual abuse are most likely to have been victimised by a friend or acquaintance – someone that is known to them. Only about one third (30%) of children are sexually victimised by a stranger. The lurking paedophile who targets and abuses children he doesn’t know is the exception rather than the rule.

Police in London city

Myth 6: More police equals less crime.

It is not surprising that police ask for more resources in the face of rising public concerns about crime. As our fears grow we expect more from the police. We expect them to be the ones to do something about crime, even if they already are (given that crime rates continue to go down). One of the most common public responses to anxieties about crime is to demand more police.

Statistically speaking however, there is little evidence to support a correlation between the number of police officers and crime rates. If more police is supposed to reduce crime, then we would expect that areas with higher numbers of police patrols would have lower crime rates, but this isn’t always the case. In fact, police are often sent to high-crime areas, and as more police flood in, more arrests are made, and the crime rate actually seems to go up – in other words, more police can actually lead to more crime, not less.

In the United States, a study carried out by the Police Foundation in Kansas City found that an area with no police patrols, an area with patrols doubled over a sustained period of time, and an area with incredibly high levels of patrol, all experienced no significant differences in the level of crime, in citizens fear of crime, or even in police response time, as a result.

At the very least, there is little evidence to be found that more police equals less crime.

Myth 7: Tough sentences deter crime.

There is a longstanding belief that tough penal sentences deter crime.

Historically, sentencing has been thought to deter other people from engaging in crime, and to deter the individual being punished from doing it again. This is a very old idea, which dates back at least to the mid-1700’s in the west. And it persists, despite the fact that many criminologists concluded some time ago ‘deterrence doesn’t work’. In polls readily available online, about 80% of the British population believes that sentencing is too lenient, whilst the same is true in Australia, the United States and Canada.

This is often understood however, as an emotive or morally driven response rather than an empirical one: particularly heinous crimes (like the sexual abuse of a child) tend to prompt ever harsher views about what should be done to offenders, despite the fact that there isn’t much evidence that harsher sentences work.

There are currently 29 states in the US with the death penalty for example, but not a great deal of evidence from any of them that the prospect of being killed has significantly impacted the homicide rate. One argument for this is that most homicides are crimes of passion, perpetrated in the heat of the moment, and so a rational calculation of the costs of murder never enters the equation. Either way, the idea that tough sentences reduce crime has yet to be substantiated.

Understanding these sorts of myths – where they come from, why they persist, and how to dismantle them – is a cornerstone of contemporary criminology. Some people argue that public education is important; but government statistics on crime have been readily available for many years. More likely there is a complex mix of social, cultural and political forces that give rise to such beliefs about crime; beliefs that are firmly held, if unfortunately quite wrong.

  • Unless otherwise stated, the figures in this blog are drawn from the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) or Police Recorded Crime Statistics (PRCS).


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