Thursday, August 05, 2010

If a crime happens in the forest...

...and nobody reports it, is it a crime?

The justice system can only cope with that of which it is aware. Unreported crime, for whatever reason it remains unreported, is invisible to the justice system. The police cannot investigate what they are unaware of, arrests cannot be made and the courts cannot address it. Indeed, calling unreported events "crimes" might be an ontological error. Unreported events, harmful as they might be to a person or group, may be more accurately understood as events that would be considered crimes had they been reported to, or discovered by the publicly sanctioned authorities.

Now, there are objectively a number of measures that a government concerned with the lack of public reportage of potential crimes might do.

They could make it a crime to not report criminal activity. But this is a bit like making suicide illegal. It would be very hard to prosecute someone for not reporting an event invisible to the law and make any victim that chose not to report a crime for any reason, a criminal also. It would compel friends and family members who knew of the victims problem to report the attack on the victim and crime of the victim not reporting it. Here we get into the absurd.

Or the government could encourage people to report criminal-type events to the police by taking a good look at why they don't. The General Social Survey - Victimization gets at some of those questions, but its data resolution is still too coarse. It doesn't get into the nitty gritty of local variations of crime reporting that may vary by neighbourhood and street as much as larger locales. It is a sample survey of the general popuation. Its findings will provide a broad picture of the unreporting of crimes that may correlate with the demographic indicators it asks about (eg income, ethnicity, sexual orientation), and the finite list of reasons it gives for not reporting a crime. For example, in the section on spousal violence, the 2009 survey asks whether the unreporting of a crime had to do with:
  • Dealt with another way
  • Fear of ex-spouse/ex-partner
  • Police couldn't do anything
  • Police wouldn't help
  • Did not want to get involved with police
  • Didn’t want ex-spouse/ex-partner arrested or jailed
  • Personal matter that didn’t concern the police
  • Little or no confidence in the criminal justice system
  • Didn’t want anyone to find out about it
  • Fear of publicity/media coverage
  • Not important enough to respondent
  • %XRP_S520% [some other reason not listed here]
  • Don’t know
  • Refusal

If people have other reasons, such as "was beaten by police in Toronto and don't trust them" we won't know from this survey. What the results do allow is further investigation as to why people appear to unreport crimes in large numbers and provide grounds for more research into the specific contexts that lead people to not report crimes, such as how they came to the rationale of why the police wouldn't help - past experience? Researchers might also to some fine-scale GIS work involve urban neighbourhoods and other demographic or even seasonal indicators such as weather. Compare that to interviews with police about their perception of those neighbours and you might start to get a clearer picture of why people don't report crimes. If I had the time, I might go looking for journal articles and reports.

This could lead to sound policies and programs that might reduce the unreported crime statistics that Doris is so anxious and sweaty about, but it might also create the demand for more police, courts, and prisons to handle the increase in reported crimes. And of course feed the conservative fetish for police and prisons.

And brings up another matter, which relates to society's capacity to self-police outside of the cops and courts.

People can problem solve and base decisions on whether to report potentially criminal behaviour on any number of factors. Is it worth it take time off work to meet the police so they can interview you about the circumstances of your stolen bike? Is it worth calling police when you catch the neighbours kid vandalising your shed, when you might do well to sit him down for a talk? Meet with his parents or something. Cases like rape are extremely problematic because of the possibility trauma to the victim. Fist fights between aquaintences might be settled with a beer and a handshake, or walking away. I am sure many of us are aware of contexts where a decision was made not to involve the police yet the outcome worked for all concerned. It gets thick and grey. Especially now that the police in Canada are getting a reputation for utterly misreading situations.

Society codifies rules of behaviour, society also codifies punishment for violating those rules, creating the concept of crime. Members of society can also find other means of solving their problems without recourse to those that system. It's there, yes. But people are also to be free enough to make their own decisions about enlisting of that system in helping them with their problems.

The apparent assumption behind Doris's dazzlement at the 66% of unreported crimes is that closer to 100% of any criminal activity should be reported. The premise behind this is ludicrous and given that we've all broken some sort of law, there'd be 10s of millions of Canadians suffering fines or jail terms if this were taken to its logical extreme. Families would be torn apart, creating more crime, and society would cease to function for the riots. But we don't clearly know what the 34% or 37% figures from previous victimization surveys actually represent when it comes to unreported crimes that ought to have been reported. By that I mean the crimes that were not reported for harmful reasons such as those resulting from fear of reprisal or lack of confidence in the justice system, not self-handling of the issue. Or more serious crimes that pose a larger public safety issue: for example real organised crime (not silly a game of strip poker among consenting friends). Even violent crime can be dealt with by people without involving the legal system. An analysis of the 2004 GSS-V states:
Of the 66% of violent incidents that were not reported, six in ten violent incidents were not reported to the police because the victim dealt with the violent incident in another way.26 Other common reasons cited for not reporting a violent incident to the police was because the victim felt that the incident was not important enough (53%), they didn’t want the police involved (42%), they felt that it was a personal matter (39%), or they didn’t think the police could do anything about it (29%). In just over one in ten violent incidents, the victim felt that the police wouldn’t help (13%), and in almost an equal proportion
of incidents, the victim did not report because they fearedretaliation by the offender (11%).When victims were asked to cite what was the main reason for not reporting to the police, fi ndings were similar. Overall,28% of violent incidents were not reported to police becausethey were dealt with in another way and a further 28% were notreported because the victim felt that they were not importantenough to bring to the attention of the police. As indicated previously, incidents that did not involve an injury,
weapon or where the victim did not have to take time off fromtheir everyday activities were less likely to be reported to the police.
It is very hard for you or me to question whether the 53% of people who felt their violent incident wasn't worth reporting were right.

In the end, the government's blithering about about unreported crimes simply helps justify an argument for rigorous research effort that might give a much more accurate picture of the real unreported crime rate. This in turn might suggest solutions beyond simpleton prison construction. Until that time, those unreported 'crimes' remain invisible to the law and any expansion of police, courts and prisons is about as useful to as building earthly mansions for unseen sky-gods. They are palliatives for people who (need to) fear some sort of imaginary other for validation of their lives...


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