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Crime in Developing Countries - Information On Crime And Criminal Justice

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The comparative state of information on crime and criminal justice around the world should not blind us entirely to absolute standards of evaluation. Thus, although data systems in the richest countries are well established, they are still inadequate in many ways (Lynch). Similarly, it is all too easy to assume that little or nothing exists in the developing world, a state of affairs belied by the growing volume of databases and edited collections that routinely include developing countries (e.g., Barak; Heiland et al.). Governments in developing countries have included at least basic information-gathering on crime and criminal justice as part of their bureaucratic routine for quite some time. Moreover, NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and other research groups have recently begun collecting more information on crime, partly in response to the perceived crisis in personal safety in many developing countries.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that databases in the developing countries offer shorter time series, with larger gaps and fewer variables for the criminologist. The United Nations' Global Report on Crime and Justice, compiled with mainly official statistics in the late 1990s, was able to include ninety-one of the world's two hundred or so countries, but the developing countries were greatly underrepresented (Newman). The situation is similar if we examine the most important alternative to official statistics on crime and criminal justice: the International Crime Victim Survey (ICVS). The ICVS is a standardized survey asking questions about household and personal victimizations, reporting to the police, and subjects' fear of crime. Its first three sweeps (1989, 1992, 1996) included fifty-five countries, but the proportional representation of developing countries was much lower (van Dijk). Moreover, the sample frame in the developed countries was national, but in developing countries it was confined to a major urban area. While a global count of other victim surveys would be difficult to accomplish, there seems little reason to doubt that they have also been more abundant in the developed nations. Finally, self-report surveys of involvement in crime and delinquency appear to repeat the same pattern. The first International Self-Report Delinquency Study, asking males and females aged fourteen to twenty-one about involvement in common delinquent acts, was confined to thirteen developed countries, and other cross-national projects using this type of survey methodology are uncommon. Examples of single self-report studies from developing countries can be found, but far less frequently than in the developed countries.

The reasons for the comparative lack of data on crime in developing countries have not been systematically studied, but are probably not hard to find. Undoubtedly the scarcity of resources is a major contributing factor. With a sevenfold difference in gross national product between richer and poorer countries, it is not surprising that governments in the developing world dedicate relatively little attention to information gathering. An additional reason may be that governmental social control is less salient in developing countries and therefore many crimes, and responses to crime, are unrecorded. Numerous studies describe patterns of crime and responses to crime in preliterate societies, rural communities, and low income urban neighborhoods where official intervention is rare (Abel). Finally, governmental crime control in many developing countries appears to make less use of planning, with its typical emphasis on the production of quality data for diagnosis, policy development, and evaluation. If decision-making is not based on systematic information, there is less interest in fostering data collection.

If these are the causes of the comparative lack of data in developing countries, it is evident that substantial improvements will not be rapid. It is by no means certain that poorer nations will get wealthier, that governments will penetrate and consolidate their hold over national territories, or that politicians will overcome their resistance to statistics. The most promising area for criminology is in international initiatives to encourage or support increased data gathering, such as the United Nations Surveys of Crime Trends and Operation of Justice Systems, which have been conducted every five years since 1977, or the growing number of cross-national studies supported by national or international funding agencies. The databases that result from these projects will help to provide better answers to the questions asked by both practitioners and theoreticians in criminology (Howard et al.).

Studies of crime in developing countries are not only hampered by missing cases and variables, but also by the often formidable difficulties involved in constructing comparisons for any international data set (Neapolitan). One problem involves varied legal definitions of crime. Burglary, for example, is recognized as a separate type of theft in common law countries, but not in civil code countries. A second problem involves varied perceptions of what constitutes a crime. Hitting a child, taking property without permission, and making gifts to public officials, for example, have no constant moral or legal status around the world. Third, levels of crime-reporting and police-recording diligence are also variable. Neuman and Berger's speculation that officially recorded crime rates are related to levels of development has received recent support from data on reporting rates for common crimes: they are highest in the New World (North America, Australia, New Zealand) and Western Europe, lowest in Latin America and Asia (van Dijk).

Confronted by these problems, comparisons based on official statistics are best confined to homicide because its definition tends to be less varied than those of other types of crime, while the seriousness of murder leads to recording rates that are closer to 100 percent (LaFree). Official rates of other types of crime are better treated at face value (a measure of police knowledge of crimes), or at most as a surrogate measure of public demand for police intervention. Thus, if comparisons based on official statistics must be restricted to one of the least frequent offenses, alternative measures of crime are extremely important. While victimization surveys have considerable limitations, they are able to measure a range of common crimes and eliminate most of the legal, if not the cultural, variation in the definition of crime. For that reason, the relatively standardized information collected through the ICVS represents a notable recent addition to our knowledge about crime in developing countries, although it must be remembered that the samples are drawn exclusively from large urban areas.

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