It must be about two years ago that I first wrote an article for this newspaper which suggested that Canberra was not the safe, low-crime city which we were told about by some politicians and the police. I based this conclusion on the results of a national crime victim survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics which showed that for many offences the ACT was on a par with the the rest of Australia. That article seemed to have had no impact and the rosy picture of a low-crime Canberra continued to be widely promoted.
Indeed, it continues today with the Attorney-General and Police Minister, Simon Corbell, being quoted in the Sunday Canberra Times of February 19 saying ''… we are a very safe city and levels of crime have driven downwards over the past 12 months because of the good work of ACT Policing''. He was partly right in saying that crime was going down, but whether this is a safe city and whether this can be attributed to the police is another matter.
I believe that most scholars in this field would say that the fall in the incidence of crime is more to do the ageing of the population which meant that the high offending age-group (males from about 16 to about 25 years) are a smaller proportion of the total population than they were in the past.
For some offences such as motor vehicle theft, however, improvements in anti-theft technology may also be relevant.
The quote from the minister was in the context of a four-page article which purported to reveal crime ''hot spots'' in the ACT with eight coloured maps showing the crude numbers of offences reported in each suburb or region. I welcome any attempt to inform the public about the incidence and location of offending, but I was disappointed with this attempt as the raw figures were not adjusted for population differences between suburbs and most of the maps were too small for practical use.
If this approach is to be used again in the ACT I would suggest that the advice of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research be sought as the bureau has been using this methodology for many years and produces publications which are both informative and interesting. The bureau's most recent report of this type also contains data which show that in NSW property crime has decreased by about 50 per cent, and violent crime by about 10 to 15 per cent, over the past decade.
Three days after the publication of this long article, on February 22, this newspaper published a brief news item which referred to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics victim survey which showed that the ACT had the second-highest rate for household break-ins in Australia - second only to the NT. This prompted just one letter to the editor by a well-known advocate of drug law reform.
Victim surveys provide more accurate and useful data on the incidence of crime than police reports of reported crime as the surveys take into account the fact that a considerable number of victims do not report the offences to the police and their findings cannot be influenced by the possibility that in some instances offences becoming known to police are not recorded and therefore do not become a part of the official crime statistics.
(It was certainly well known not so many years ago that some police stations kept what was known as a ''Paddy's book'' in which offences were recorded if they were not likely to be solved and would not be forwarded to headquarters. This served a double purpose of showing that crime rates were reasonably low while maintaining the appearance of an acceptably high clear-up rate.)
One part of the 2010-11 ABS victim survey, that related to household break-ins, is worth examining fairly closely. For this national survey, in the ACT it was estimated that there were 138,300 households and of these 5700 reported they had been the victims of one or more break-ins in the 12 months before the face-to-face interview. This showed that 4.1 per cent of ACT households had been victimised. The vicimisation rate for this offence is calculated on the basis of households, not of individuals.
Exactly the same methodology was used in each state and territory. In NSW the rate was found to be 2.7 based on 72,900 households being victimised out of a total for the state of 2,731,800 households. For the whole nation, listing jurisdictions from highest to lowest the picture is: NT - 6.9, ACT - 4.1, WA - 3.7, QLD - 3.2, TAS - 2.9, NSW - 2.7, SA - 2.6 and VIC - 2.3. Anyone who has even just glanced at these figures must see the reality of the fact that the ACT is certainly not the safe and crime-free city we have been told about.
Household break-ins, also known as unlawful entry with intent or residential burglary, is the quintessential offence which determines whether residents feel safe about living in a particular area or suburb. In my view it is always a serious offence as it is a violation of one's private space and its consequences can be profound, especially for female victims.
It is logically possible that the ACT figures show that the fall in the number of break-ins has not been as significant as in the rest of Australia, but whether this explanation is true or not we still have a serious problem that needs resolution. As the starting point for any serious attempt to change crime patterns must be the collection and distribution of accurate information, a fresh approach may well be justified.
When the current period of fiscal stringency passes, as it surely must in the next year or two, our government should consider the establishment of an ACT bureau of crime statistics and research which would be an independent body charged with the responsibility to collect, analyse and publish data from the police, courts and corrective services. It would also be expected to liaise with the relevant national bodies so that the relative effectiveness and efficiency of ACT criminal justice agencies are seen in the context of other Australian jurisdictions.
David Biles is a Canberra-based consultant criminologist.
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