Most people are convinced that crime levels have never been higher and are continually on the rise with murder rates similarly on the increase because it seems that we live in an ever more violent society. In fact, the statistics present a totally different and much more reassuring picture.
This week, we had the latest data from the Crime Survey for England & Wales which covers around 84% of the UK population.
This shows that last year recorded crime fell by 4%. This represents a continuation of the downward trend that we have seen since 1995 and the total number of offences has now fallen below 4 million – with a rising population – for the first time in 23 years. This is the longest sustained fall in overall crime since the Second World War. Of course, recorded crime is not all crime, but comparing like with like does tend to show trends and serious crime does tend to be recorded.
The most serious crime of all is murder. Last year, the number of murders fell by 14% to 550 homicides. This is the lowest level since 2002 when the figure was inflated by the 172 murders attributed to Dr Harold Shipman. Excluding this special case, last year’s murder rate was the lowest since 1983. The number of murders rose from about 300 a year in the early 1960s to an annual death toll of more than 800 a decade ago but, in the last nine years, the number of murders has almost halved.
The most important feature of murder statistics is that most murders are not perpetrated by a stranger such as a serious criminal. More than two thirds of murders involve a partner or ex partner or stem from family related violence. Women are specially at risk from a violent partner and children are particularly at risk from a step-parent. So much for the fear of strangers.
You will find a detailed breakdown of the latest crime statistics for England & Wales here.
These trends are, of course, very welcome. But how do we explain them? What drives down crime rates and especially the number of murders? Is it rising prosperity, in which case the current deep and prolonged recession might be expected to drive crime levels back up. Is it police numbers, in which case the planned 20% cuts in police levels might be expected to lead to more crime.
The explanation might be more subtle and reflect a change in attitude towards crime, especially violent crime in the home. Rightly domestic violence is now treated as a far more serious crime than used to be the case.
It is not just in Britain that we see these trends. Right across Europe and North America – even in the USA where today we had an appalling murder spree – the murder rate has been falling. Maybe, just maybe, we are becoming more civilised.