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Statistics: Historical Trends in Western Society - Estimates Of Crime In The Modern Era

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Early studies of property crime during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are colored by the role of legal institutions in the community. Where the courts were merely formal instruments for carrying out the informal will of the community—or where, in addition to the courts, the church and other nonlegal institutions played a major part in sanctioning wrongdoers as in medieval Europe and colonial America—the picture of crime provided by studies of court records probably underestimates the actual level of minor property crime. Where the courts had already achieved a high degree of independence and authority in a largely secular society, as in eighteenth-century England, estimates of criminality based upon court records are more accurate.

As the estimates of crime for modern societies are examined, the pattern becomes more interesting. Much more is known about the sociopolitical and legal forces that produced the reported crime patterns. The strains that modernization fostered in these societies are well understood, and the legal institutions themselves were often straining to develop the structures and procedures of a modern court system. The training of lawyers and judges was improved, criminal procedures were sharpened and rationalized, and new forensic methods for coping with a mounting volume of minor crime were invented, so that as the character of criminality changed in response to modernization, the legal institutions for coping with it were simultaneously perfected. Since both processes were occurring simultaneously, it is difficult to know which picture crime studies represent: crime as a changing social phenomenon, or crime as a reflection of evolving criminal institutions. In most cases the picture is a double exposure reflecting both aspect of the crime scene.

Statistics: Historical Trends in Western Society - Nineteenth-century Criminality [next] [back] Statistics: Historical Trends in Western Society - Criminality In The Premodern Era

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