Criminology Myth Busters: Discerning Fact From Fiction | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Criminology Myth Busters: Discerning Fact From Fiction

Sensationalised news stories, dramatised television shows and romanticised views of the profession all play a role in the myths and misconceptions that shroud the field of criminology.

As a criminologist my very role is a mystery to many, which gives me a convenient launchpad from which to debunk some common myths about the fascinating, yet often understood, craft of criminology.

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Eliminating Crime vs Implicating Criminals

When I tell people that I am a criminologist, a common misconception is that I am a criminal lawyer or, perhaps more glamorously, a crime-scene investigator. I am neither, although I originally wanted to be a forensic psychologist and work with offenders and rehabilitation, until I realised psychology was not for me.

Criminal law and forensic science deal with the investigation of crimes and are focused on obtaining successful convictions in court. In comparison, criminology is the study of crime trends, offending, victimisation, risk factors, responses and prevention. As a criminologist, my role is to understand the why and how crime occurs so we can address and eliminate it, rather than implicate criminals.

The end goal of preventing future crimes, and making places safer, is what fascinates me.

The CSI Effect

Just as criminologists are often mistaken as crime-scene investigators, crime and investigations are equally misunderstood, or misrepresented, particularly in crime television shows. In fictional shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, outrageous crimes are committed on a regular basis, fingerprints and DNA are run through computer systems, within a few days a match is made, the perpetrator is tracked, traced and apprehended, presenting forensic science as an infallible science.

It is a distorted and unrealistic view of the capabilities of forensic science that is known as the CSI effect – a term that was coined after the hit TV show was found to skew jurors’ courtroom expectations, making it more difficult to obtain a conviction. In reality, the collection and analysis of forensic evidence is far more complex, time-consuming, and less precise, with clearance rates for most types of crime nowhere as high as presented in TV shows.

Demand for Homicide Detectives

TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which was once thought to be the most watched TV show in the world, have also sensationalised homicide investigations, and glamorised the roles of investigators. They portray murders, double murders and multiple murders as daily occurrences, and serial killers being brought to justice week in, week out. It has led to the unrealistic expectations from students that there is demand for homicide detectives and criminal profilers.

When students enrol in a criminology degree expecting to become a homicide detective, I have to break their heart a bit. There is not a huge demand for homicide detectives or profilers in Queensland; our homicide rate is pretty low, which is a good thing. In reality, it is far more likely that Queensland police will be investigating property crime rather than homicide.

The Crime Drop

This brings us to the myth that crime is increasing. Media coverage, particularly news reports, are partly to blame for this misconception.

A worldwide phenomenon called the Crime Drop shows that in many countries most types of crime have been declining since the 1980s and 1990s.

If we look at the rate of homicide in Australia, it has remained consistent over the past few decades – and by world standards Australian homicide rates are fairly low. Meanwhile, nationally, we have seen a 40-50 per cent decline in property crime, such as burglaries and car theft.

In Queensland, over the last two decades, crime rates have trended downwards slightly too – helped in part by a drop in property offences over that same period.

However, more recently, crimes such as physical assaults have trended upwards after coming off a low point in 2020 when COVID-19-related restrictions limited social contact between people.

Youth crime has followed a similar pattern too, decreasing by about one-third over the past decade.

However, as youth crime is often the lead story on Queensland TV news, the public perception is that it is on the rise. In reality, what we have seen is a small section of young recidivist offenders who are committing the majority of very serious offences – and because they are at times horrific and shocking, they capture the public's attention.

Taken together, these news stories can create the impression that crime is on the rise, whereas in most cases this is not true.

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Why Crime Is Falling

This segues nicely into the fifth and final myth presented in this article: that punitive measures must work if crime rates are declining.

Conversely, there is a great deal of research that indicates that punitive action does not work, particularly with younger people. Additionally, there is increasing evidence is that punishment is actually criminogenic, or it makes it more likely that people re-offend.

There are a few hypotheses about what is behind falling crime rates. One is that we have more and better home security so our homes and cars are harder to break into these days. Another hypothesis is that policing has become more proactive and strategic rather than reactive.

Criminologists still struggle to come up with the reason why crime, overall, has declined so significantly. But explaining the observed trends is what is fascinates me about the profession and drives my own personal interest in environmental criminology – how the environment and situations shape opportunities for crime, and in terms of prevention what can we do to change or amend in those environments to try to prevent or deter criminal behaviours.

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