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Serious violence - maybe falling

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Mark Easton | 11:35 UK time, Thursday, 23 October 2008

It is an almighty embarrassment and will give ammunition to those who argue that the crime figures have been fiddled. But today's statistical fiasco does not demonstrate that serious crime is soaring whatever you may read in the papers. If anything, serious violence in England and Wales is probably stable or even falling.

What has happened is that crimes recorded in a box marked "other violence against the person" should have been put in a box marked "most serious violence against the person". By correcting the situation we see a year-on-year rise in most serious violence from 4,500 crimes to 5,500 crimes.

Yes, this whole row is over the labelling of 1,000 crimes out of total of 237,000 violent offences and over 5 million recorded crimes in England and Wales.

One would expect, therefore, to see a fall in the number of crimes in the "other" box. And indeed we do. There were 116,000 crimes recorded in that category in April to June last year and there were 105,000 during the same period this year - a fall of more than 11,000.

For me, the real question is what this means in terms of the risk from violent crime. Does the re-labelling mean attacks are really going up? Well, almost certainly no.

The British Crime Survey, which asks people about their experience of crime, has consistently been documenting falls in violent crime since the mid-nineties and the latest round of interviews shows levels of violent crime to be stable compared with the year to June 2007.

Crime.jpgToday's quarterly stats show overall violence recorded DOWN 7%. Recorded firearm offences DOWN 22%. Recorded robbery DOWN a whopping 16%.

Further evidence on trends in serious violent crime is provided by the Violence and Society Research Group at Cardiff University. They looked at what was happening in 29 Accident and Emergency departments in England and Wales.

They found an overall fall of 12 per cent in serious violence in 2007 compared with2006, continuing an overall downward trend observed between 2000 and 2006.

The real disaster with this is that it will increase people's distrust of the data and millions will go on believing they are at increased risk of violence.

Their lives will be blighted - not by real guns and knives - but by fear of them.

Our society can be a dangerous place. But statistics don't beat people up.

PS. It is worth adding that the categorisation problems do not mean that violent criminals are getting away with it. The Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales will look at the facts of each incident in deciding for what someone should be prosecuted.

Even if police described an incident as ABH, if there was clear intent to cause injury, the crime should come to court as "wounding/causing grievous bodily harm with intent, contrary to section 18 Offences Against the Person Act 1861".

What it apparently comes down to is this: if a drunk attacks someone with a bottle and misses, that crime should be categorised as GBH with intent - even though no injury resulted. Police forces have, in some cases, described that kind of incident as ABH or another lesser crime not included in the "most serious violence" category.

However, if the system works properly, our drunk would still get prosecuted for the more serious crime.

Update: 16:22

A further update following the post from wallacehorse. Thank you for that - you highlight another bizarre feature of this whole affair.

The way the police record a particular incident is different from the way the prosecutors are instructed to deal with it.

The police recording rules say that if someone intends to commit GBH but doesn't cause any or only minor injury it should be categorised as 'GBH with intent' - a 'most serious' violent crime. However, the Crown Prosecution Service requires that for someone to be prosecuted for 'GBH with intent', the crime must actually cause wounding or grievous bodily harm.

The definitions can be found here

What this means is that while police move such incidents from one box to another, making it appear that serious violence is soaring, the courts have largely been treating such crimes as ABH or minor assault.

I am told that further confusion arises because different local CPS prosecutors have their own views on this point. What a mess!

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