A short set of Notes looking at crime trends and patterns in England and Wales over the past 50-odd years. While students don’t require a detailed factual knowledge of trends and patterns they do provide a useful introduction to the next set of Notes covering theoretical explanations for crime and deviance.
One reason for measuring crime is to identify trends and patterns in the data, based around the categories of class, age, gender, ethnicity and location, that can then be explained sociologically.
There are two main sources of official crime data generally used to identity patterns and trends:
- Police-recorded crime statistics are, as the name suggests, recorded by the police each time a crime is reported.
- Official Crime Surveys: Ther initial type of official crime survey covering the years 1982 – 2012 was the British Crime Survey consisting of face-to-face interviews with a representative population sample. In 2012 the BCS was renamed as the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) to reflect the fact the data only covered England and Wales and not Scotland. During the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 the Survey switched to carrying-out telephone-based representative samples.
Over the past 50 years official (police-recorded) crime statistics and the BCS / CSEW have both shown an initially upward trend that peaked in the mid-1990s and then gradually declined. Both sets of statistics have, however, shown a recent upward trend in crime that reflects the influence of Internet-based crimes – particularly varieties of fraud. In 2023, for example, an estimated 2 million additional crimes were attributed to computer-based fraud in the police-recorded statistics.
Crime Trends in England and Wales
|BCS / CSEW (millions)
For a variety of methodological reasons we can’t simply take these figures at face value. Crime statistics are socially constructed in the sense they provide us with snapshots of criminal behaviour over time – and as with any snapshot the picture we see depends on the angle from which it’s viewed. This doesn’t mean crime statistics don’t tell us anything useful about crime and offenders; rather, it means we have to be aware of their different limitations.
Maguire (2007), for example, argues that the ‘strong temptation’ to interpret BCS / CSEW figures ‘as showing that there is “three to four times as much crime” as the official records suggest is a trap into which many people have duly fallen. The problem lies in the wide variations between offences in terms of their reporting and (to a lesser extent) recording rates.’
In addition, while it’s easy to show overall crime trends, as in the above Table, there are wide variations in trends for specific crimes. In the past, for example, “fraud” was a relatively minor type of white-collar crime in terms of the overall number of offences. This was largely because to commit this type of economic crime the perpetrator had to be in a position of trust and responsibility. The widespread development of computer technology and the Internet has, in recent years, changed this situation. On-line forms of fraud involve different power relationships between perpetrator and victim, where one has greater knowledge than the other. This change has resulted in various forms of fraud – from simple on-line scams to complex romance frauds – becoming the single most prevalent form of crime in recent times.
This, in a nutshell, means that while overall crime may be falling, some types are rising. We need, therefore, to keep in mind the sensitivity of crime statistics to:
- Real changes in criminal behaviour: property and vehicle crimes are particularly sensitive to economic changes; they generally rise when economic conditions deteriorate.
- Changing patterns of recording: Flatley et al. (2010)note that a lower percentage fall in official crime statistics is explained by ‘changes in police recording practice in 1998 and 2002’ which resulted in more crimes being recorded.
- Changing public and police priorities: recent increases in recorded drug offences, for example, are the result of more intensive policing digging into the dark figure of crime.
In terms of an overall pattern to criminal behaviour, most crime in our society is committed by young, working class, males living in urban, particularly inner-city, areas. Their ethnic background is overwhelmingly white, although black ethnicities are over-represented in prison compared with their proportions in the general population. We can break this general pattern down to highlight specific offender differences based around a range of categories.
Understanding the relationship between class and crime presents two initial problems. First, how we measure class (the most common proxy indicator, occupation, is by no means perfect) and, second, the fact that our knowledge about this relationship is drawn from those convicted or cautioned. How representative this group is of ‘all offenders’ is debatable and we need to keep in mind two observations when drawing conclusions about crime and class based largely on those convicted of crimes.
- Only a small proportion of criminal acts are reported to and recorded by the police (the ‘dark figure’ of crime).
- Of those who commit criminal acts only a minority (currently (2024) around 6% of all offenders) are ever convicted or cautioned.
In some ways, therefore, convicted offenders are a self-selected sample. An alternative interpretation put forward by left realists such as Lea and Young (1993) is that we should see convicted offenders as a snapshot of criminality that, while an imperfect measure, is not wholly inaccurate. While middle and upper-class offenders may be under-represented in prison populations (just as the elderly and women are similarly under-represented), it doesn’t necessarily follow there is a large, undiscovered, reservoir of ‘middle-class criminals’ in society. Data from the Social Exclusion Unit (2002) support this interpretation: the majority of convicted offenders have low or no educational achievement, long periods of unemployment and a history of crime running through their family background.
Critical use of crime data does, therefore, tells us something about the relationship between class and crime. Braithwaite’s (1979) review of 41 self-report studies, for example, found a strong correlation between class and crime, with working-class juveniles and adults committing more crime than their middle-class counterparts. Similarly, the majority of convicted offenders are drawn from the working class and different classes commit different types of offence:
- violence and property theft are mainly working-class offences
- fraud and embezzlement have traditionally been middle-class crimes
- corporate crime – insider trading, environmental crimes, market rigging and the like – is mainly an upper-class phenomenon
This broad categorisation is an important pointer to the relationship between class and crime in that it indicates how crime can be related to different opportunity structures. Middle-class offenders, for example, have greater opportunities for offences like fraud because they are more likely to be in positions of trust and authority.
The age profile of offenders is more reliable because measurement is straightforward and official crime statistics record the age of offenders. In this respect, one consistent research finding is the strong correlation between age and deviance. Young people (variously defined as the 14–29 age group) have far higher levels of criminal involvement.
In terms of trends, Hughes and Church (2010) note that offending declines with age. The major point of decline occurs as individuals enter their 30s, with offending by those over 60 described as ‘negligible’. Over the past 15 years offending for all 30+ age groups has been largely flat, with a slight rise among the 40–49 age group.
In terms of patterns, young people (aged 10–29) are proportionately more involved in crime and deviance than their older counterparts, with the peak age for offending for males being 18 and for females being 15 (Summerfield and Babb, 2005).
Self and Zealey (2007) further note that, ‘The number of young offenders as a proportion of the population is highest for males between the ages of 10 and 19’ and that until 2007 they had the highest rate of offending for any age group. Over the past few years, however, Hughes and Church (2010) note that the 20–29 age group now has the highest rate of offending.
Hirschi and Gottfredson (1983) argue that ‘the relationship between age and crime is invariant [constant] across all social and cultural conditions at all times’, while Kanazawa and Still (2000) suggest ‘crime and other risk-taking behaviour…peaks in late adolescence and early adulthood, rapidly decreases throughout the 20s and 30s, and levels off during middle age’.
Gender is another social category that can be reliably defined. Higher male involvement in crime, Maguire (2002) argues, is a ‘universal feature…of all modern countries’. While crime is gendered in that men commit significantly morecrime and a wider range of offences (fromrobbery, through burglary, to sex offences), there is not, as Self and Zealey (2007) demonstrate, very much difference in the types of crime committed; theft, drug offences andpersonal violence, for example, are the main offencesfor both sexes.
Prison trends and patterns
One recent trend, with implications for solutions to the problem of crime is the continued growth in the prison population over a period when crime rates have consistently fallen.
Prison population by gender: England and Wales
In terms of patterns, the observation that men of all ages commit more crime than women is reflected in the prison population, where, in 2024, 96% of all prisoners were men.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (2011), however, notes that while women are less likely to be imprisoned, their rate of imprisonment ‘is increasing faster than the rate for men – many for relatively minor offences’. Despite the number of women in prison doubling over the past 25 years, female imprisonment as a proportion of male incarceration has fallen because of the large increase in male imprisonment.
The relationship between ethnicity and crime presents a couple of immediate methodological problems:
- How can ethnic groups be reliably and validly defined? While official crime statistics use ‘country of origin’ as a proxy indicator of ethnicity this is not necessarily the case with other measures.
- Minority ethnic groups have two important demographic characteristics that affect the relationship between ethnicity and crime: they are more likely to be working class and have a younger age profile than the white majority.
When comparing rates of offending across ethnic groups, therefore, we need to be aware that these two characteristics may be more significant than simple ideas about ethnicity. If we control for social class, for example, all ethnicities show similar levels of ‘street crime’ activity in their populations. In addition, rates for ethnic minorities living in low-crime, ‘white-majority’ communities are not significantly different and the same is true of whites living in ‘black-majority’ areas. This suggests, perhaps, that we should not overstate the relationship between ethnicity and offending.
Levels of criminality
It’s also important to note that when talking about ‘ethnicity and crime’ we are, more properly, referring to ethnic minorities and while the evidence for higher proportional levels of criminality is mixed (there is some evidence that young black youths have greater involvement in gun-related crime, for example), the Commission for Racial Equality (2004) suggests there is better evidence for ethnic minorities having higher rates of:
- arrest and prosecution for notifiable offences. In 2020/21 although only 15% of arrests for notifiable offences were from non-white minority groups, black minorities overall were three times more likely to be arrested than whites, although arrest rates varied significantly by locality (black offenders tend to be concentrated in large-scale urban areas, such as cities, for example). Asian ethnicities show a similar pattern to their White counterparts (the former had an arrest rate of 8 per thousand, the latter an arrest rate of 9. The figure for Black ethnicities was 21)).
- remand in prison (refused bail)
- representation in the prison population. The Equality and Human Rights Commission notes that around 18% of the current prison population is Black/Asian (ethnic minorities currently make up around 8% of the population) and that, on average, ‘five times more Black people than White people in England and Wales are imprisoned’.
Of those found guilty, around 25% of the male and 31% of the female prison population are from an ethnic minority. One factor that might explain this pattern is that black minority prisoners tend to serve longer prison sentences than other ethnic groups (something that might partly be explained in terms of their greater involvement in gun crime).
Crime is related to geographical location in terms of both physical and cultural environments:
- Physical in the sense of how people interact with their environment. As Clarke et al. (2004) note, ‘The highest crime rates are in city centre areas, with the lowest in the most rural. Different types of crime tend to occur in different types of areas.’
- Cultural in the sense ofthinking about how an area’s composition — considered in terms of class, age, gender and ethnicity — relates to crime. While Clarke et al. make the familiar connection between higher rates of crime in working-class areas, the question here is the extent to which this difference is a function of locality rather than class, age or ethnicity.
Kershaw et al. (2008), for example, note that crime is not evenly distributed; there are clear concentrations by region and this is one reason why local crime surveys find patterns of crime significantly different from the ‘national average’.
Particular types of crime are also unevenly distributed:
- rural households have a lower risk of household crimes, vandalism, vehicle-related theft and burglary
- household crime is higher in deprived areas
Crimes are also geographically concentrated, with robbery in particular being sensitive to location. Around 60% of all robberies in England and Wales are recorded in three areas:
- Metropolitan London
- Greater Manchester
- West Midlands
Differences between urban and rural areas
Bangs et al. (2010) also note that densely populated urban areas have the highest rates of violence, vehicle crimes and thefts. Counties in the North of England ‘had higher rates of recorded crime than England and Wales overall for each of the five main offence types except violence against the person’ while Eastern England is the area with the lowest overall crime rate — something partly explained by its larger rural population. They also note ‘differences in household crime between urban and rural areas and between the most and least deprived areas have remained consistent over recent years’. In terms of ethnicity, urban areas generally have a lower ratio of black–white arrest rates than rural areas (such as Norfolk, where blacks were eight times more likely to be arrested than whites).
In terms of general crime trends, Flatley et al. (2010) note that rural, semi-rural and urban areas have shown similar downward trends over the past 15 years, although for some offences (particularly burglary and car crime) the rural-urban disparity has narrowed in the past 10 years.