Lies, damn lies and lawyers’ use of statistics

I’ve long regarded writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper as a rather sad and futile exercise.  Far better to post on your own blog, where at least you’re only inflicting your opinions on genuinely consenting adults with similar obsessions. 

However, I couldn’t resist sending in the one that follows over the fold to that great journal of crocodilian record the NT News.  It deals with NT crime rates and related issues. Whether they’ll publish it is another matter, it’s rather longer than the norm for the genre, and any substantial editing would render the exercise even more pointless  than it inherently is anyway:

Dear Sir,
 
It isn’t often we see a genuinely useful policy idea amidst all the partisan political rhetoric of the editorial page opinion columns of the Sunday Territorian.  But Peter Murphy’s suggestion that requiring prisoners to complete education and training programs (especially remedial adult literacy) as a condition of obtaining remissions on sentence is an idea worth serious consideration.  Poor education levels are certainly a significant factor causing recidivist offenders to keep committing crimes.
 
Apart from that, however, Murphy’s column repeats a spurious CLP meme that for some reason Henderson government representatives haven’t bothered to correct.  Perhaps they think it would make them look like complacent apologists for crime or some such “spin doctor” rationale.   I refer to the claim that Territory crime rates are rising despite high imprisonment rates. 
 
Murphy at least has the excuse that he’s merely repeating a recent claim to that effect by Criminal Lawyers’ Association president John Lawrence.  Lawrence claimed that although property crime has decreased, bashings, sexual assaults and unlawful killings have increased by 48%.  Unfortunately this claim is somewhere between grossly misleading and totally false.  It relies on the fact that the number of non-sexual assaults is so much higher than all the other categories of violent crime as to give a completely misleading picture if all violent crimes are grouped together.
 
The actual figures for the most recent year 2007 (from NT Department of Justice figures which in turn form the basis of the ABS ones Lawrence used) are as follows.  Since 2002 house break-ins have fallen by 47%; commercial break-ins have fallen by 25%; motor vehicle thefts have fallen by 40%; and sexual assaults have fallen by 8%. 
 
The number of homicide and related offences is relatively small and long term numbers fluctuate sometimes wildly without having any statistical significance.  Nevertheless, in both 2001 and 2002 there were 28 homicides (murder, attempted murder and manslaughter) whereas in 2006 there were 21 and in 2007 there were 22.  Thus, here too there has been a fall of around 20%, although it arguably doesn’t evidence a significant trend.
 
The ONLY offence category that has actually risen at all since 2002 is non-sexual assault (what Murphy calls “bashings”).  They have risen by 41%, however the Department of Justice reports that “increases in assaults largely reflect the impact of operational changes the police have made in the reporting and recording of domestic violence related assaults.”   In other words, the incidence of assaults probably hasn’t really risen much at all, it’s just that police now record domestic violence incidents as crimes where previously they often didn’t.
 
The problem with perpetuating “laura norder” myths like the one that NT crime rates are rising, when in fact almost exactly the opposite is true, is that the misinformation can allow ill-considered policy proposals to be advanced and not subjected to informed debate.  It also allows interstate tourist commentators to paint the NT as a place too dangerous to visit.  One example of the former is the occasional CLP demand for restoration of mandatory sentencing, despite the fact that property crime rates whether coincidentally or otherwise actually rose fairly consistently during the years it was in force. 
 
Another is John Lawrence’s claim that high overall imprisonment rates have manifestly failed to stem increasing crime and that therefore other sentencing options should be tried.  There may be lots of reasons to consider sentencing options other than imprisonment, but trends in crime rates is not one of them.  By that measure tough sentencing and high imprisonment rates have in fact been highly successful.

Online PS – Statistical sources here and here.
 

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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skepticlawyer
13 years ago

Crime rates have been falling all over the developed world since about the mid-90s. Maybe the NT was a bit behind the global trend but I’m not sure. What amazes me is that no politician wants to take credit for this, anywhere! They still keep running on ‘Laura Norder’ platforms and inducing moral panics about rising crime despite the fact that the opposite holds true.

I hope your letter gets a proper run, but like Jacques, I think you’ll be lucky if it does.

Chris lloyd
Chris lloyd
13 years ago

Thanx Ken, Any chance of a link to the Lawrence article as well as the NT Department of Justice figures?

BTW: I am currently involved in a project measuring the effectiveness of in-house legal teams. Call it a statistician’s revenge.

Francis Xavier Holden
13 years ago

Tony Delroy ABC local does a whip around of the state newspapers each night around midnight. The Territory paper is notable for the way the reporters woodenly read out the articles word for word, making for a very stilted radio presentation.

Last night the usual whip around from the states covered headline stories such as vehicle manufacturing, fuel prices, fraud, politics, nuclear free etc etc .

Then we get to NT. Lead stories only two. One is the story of a snake in a bike shop – nothing happened. Then a story of a cane toad who survived being eaten by a dog. End of major news in NT.

I can hardly wait until my trip to Darwin in early August to experience the excitement and sophistication first hand.

FDB
FDB
13 years ago

“What amazes me is that no politician wants to take credit for this, anywhere!”

That’s the way crime works though SL. Nobody wants to say “crime’s not a huge problem” because there WILL be a horrible crime committed in the day or so following, and they’ll look heartless.

“Premier Rests on Laurels While Labrador Puppies Strangled”

FDB
FDB
13 years ago

Also of course it’s the “you can always do more”… “any crime is too much crime”… blah blah blah

Well yeah, but you can always do less, too. Should we do more? This must be coherently argued and the benefits weighed against the costs. Much easier to mouth whatever platitudes come to mind about defenseless grannies and binge drinking youths, and quietly go about the business of running an adequate police force as best you can (with the exceptions, caveats and bribery that will always entail).

Francis Xavier Holden
13 years ago

I was impressed with this headline fro mNT News
Sensational shooting sees Dyer crowned king of NT Queen’s

Wtf? Gay Politics Killer On Loose?

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

I thought Giuliani took a fair bit of the credit for the fairly dramatic reduction in NY crime in the late 90’s – and reasonably deservedly, it would seem.

rf
rf
13 years ago

Premier Rests on Laurels While Labrador Puppies Strangled

Thanks FDB, I just snorted my lunch through my nose!

FDB
FDB
13 years ago

From Jacques’ link:

“Unfortunately we had one a few weeks ago but even with that unfortunate incident we’re still historically the lowest period we’re probably ever had as far as I can remember.”

So he can’t remember 2003 or 2004?

FDB
FDB
13 years ago

Moderated.

Also, forgot to warn about my link being to a .pdf – sorry!

Woodsy
13 years ago

I have a theory that all governments want the plebs to live in fear – fear of terrorists, fear of disease, fear of local gangs – anything to keep attention away from what governments (of all complexions and persuasions) are actually doing. The media contribute by focussing on trivia (petrol prices, meaningless statistics, celebrities) and exacerbating the problem by not printing anything using polysyllabic words and not understood by anyone with a reading age below nine. I thought for a brief moment about sending my response to the discussion paper on climate change but, on reflection, being rejected by the NT News editors (because they couldn’t understand anything that doesn’t contain the word ‘basically’) is too awful to contemplate.

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

I doubt it’s an issue of keeping attention away from what governments are doing – apathy already does that job quite nicely. I suspect it’s just political reality that fear is about the greatest vote-changer. What governments need is for people to vote for them, hence more often than not the most successful political parties are the ones that best play to people’s fears.

Pappinbarra Fox
Pappinbarra Fox
13 years ago

If you had included a picture of a crcodile that might have improved your chances of being printed.

Jezery
Jezery
13 years ago

I was impressed with this headline from NT News
Sensational shooting sees Dyer crowned king of NT Queens

Wtf? Gay Politics Killer On Loose?

Oh dear, as a member of the Darwin Rifle Club, I can’t let that one pass without some explanation.

Queen Victoria in 1860 inaugurated the Queens Prize in an attempt to raise the standard of marksmanship following the Crimean War. In Australia, the states formed individual Rifle Associations soon afterwards, with each hosting their own Queens Prize.

The 2008 NT Queen’s Prize shoot was held from 5-9 June. Bob Dyer is a veteran shooter who performed extremely well to beat competitors from every state in Australia and from New Zealand. As well as Bob winning A grade, Darwin shooters also took out B grade and C grade, so as a club, we’re all pretty pleased with ourselves.

(My own performance was less than remarkable – I only just missed out on the wooden spoon in my division to a man who is legally blind)