The Stats Guy: Lock the door but rest easy. The numbers say crime is declining


Please don’t let news reports about crime shape your perception of public safety.

Even in the safest, low-crime city there will always be enough crime to fill the headlines on any given day. But if we read those headlines without statistical background information, we risk falling for the “what you see is all there is” fallacy.

The term was coined by Daniel Kahneman and, since he has won a Nobel Prize, we shall look at this concept a bit closer.

Our brains are wired to treat the information we have in front of us as if it is all the information there is.

In the case of reading up on another gruesome murder, or listening to another true crime podcast, we are tricked into thinking how horrible this world is and that crime is everywhere.

We are blind to the broader context, and things get worse the more we read up on crime. That’s also how the social media bubbles work in which we operate.

We can counter “what you see is all there is” by putting crime stories into statistical context, by purposefully looking for context, historical comparison and trends.

You might be hearing about a horrible murder right now, but the murder rate in Australia is low compared to abroad and has been trending downwards.

In fact, the murder rate halved over the last two decades.

In our country of 25 million people, we don’t even have a murder every day. Last year Australia recorded 263 murders, which is one murder every 33 hours. Murder is always terrible, but we are doing well in international comparison.

Whether we have 200 murders or 2000 murders, it will still be enough to fill your newsfeed every day.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the gun-slinging US recorded six times as many murders (relative to population) as Australia. But that the polite Canadians and well-educated Finns have a murder rate twice as high as Australia might not have been expected.

If you still feel unsafe in Australia, you should move to Japan or Singapore where the murder rate is even lower.

When measuring crime, we can only refer to reported/recorded crime. Since all murders tend to be reported, the data here is close to correct (surely some sort of murder will go undetected and spark a new true crime podcast).

Sexual assault, drug deals, or acts of vandalism go unreported much more often, leading to incomplete data.

What happened in the world of crime recently? The good news first.

Almost all crime went down in recent years.

Whether we measure the total count of crimes or the crime rate (number of recorded crimes per 100,000 population) the overall trend suggests Australia is becoming a safer place.

Drug-related offences are down too, from 77,000 before the pandemic to 63,000 in the 2020-21 financial year – that’s a decline of about 20 per cent.

Drugs are often used in communal settings. People who don’t adhere to narcotic laws adhered to lockdown laws? Were they simply not caught because drug use took place in private rather than public environments and was harder to police?

Bottlenecks in the global supply chain also must’ve impacted the drug trade, resulting in fewer drugs being available for illicit consumption.

Domestic violence is up though, with 41,000 cases reported last year.

Logic dictates that prolonged lockdowns and other pandemic stressors increased domestic violence. High numbers of domestic violence reports filed internationally are often seen as a step in the right direction as it indicates that such crimes are reported instead of going forever unreported.

Interpretation of such data is particularly difficult – I might tackle this issue in a future column in more detail.

Crime, of any nature, is still a young man’s game.

Three-quarters of all offenders are male. The younger you are, the more likely you are to commit a crime. But the fall in the overall crime rate was due to a steep decline in young offenders, who offset the increasing number of older offenders.

The trend to a longer working life seems to have reached crime as well.

The pandemic forced all industries to digitise their operations at a breakneck pace, and crime hasn’t been an exception.

Cybercrime reports went up during the pandemic. Why bother roaming the streets if you can commit crimes from the comfort of your own home?

You might’ve recently read about the 2016 Bitcoin heist where a relatively simple hack into a small crypto exchange allowed a young techie couple to steal bitcoins worth $100 million.

They were recently caught and, in today’s exchange rate, their haul was worth $5 billion – making it the largest robbery in history.

Today’s history-making crimes are done digitally. The heist movies of the future will look very different, so will the villains and the heroes.

For now, we can enjoy living in a relatively safe country that has generally been getting safer over the years.

We’ve Already Come Too Far To End This Now.

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