BJS: Bureau of Justice Statistics

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Crime and Justice in the United States
and in England and Wales, 1981-96

Justice system changes

United States murder United States rape
United States robbery United States assault
United States burglary United States motor vehicle theft

To the chart data

Notes on figures 73-78: All figures pertain exclusively to the United States. Probability of arrest for persons suspected of committing a crime was obtained by dividing the nationally estimated total number of persons (all ages) arrested (based on FBI arrest data) by the nationally estimated total number of persons (all ages) allegedly committing crime that year (see Notes on figures 25-30). Probability of conviction for persons arrested was obtained by dividing the nationally estimated total number of persons convicted (see Notes on figures 19-24) by the nationally estimated total number of persons (all ages) arrested. Crime definitions for the graphics are given in Notes on figures 5-10

Reasons for divergent trends in legal punishment in England (including Wales) and the United States

Changes in the likelihood of conviction and incarceration can be explained more convincingly than changes in crime rates. The English decreases in the probability of conviction were caused by --

  • the increasing use of recorded cautions and unrecorded warnings for detected offenders (Home Office, 1985, 1990b; Farrington, 1992)
  • the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which increased procedural safe-guards for accused persons (Irving and MacKenzie, 1989)
  • the introduction of the Crown Prosecution Service in 1986, with lawyers replacing police officers as prosecutors, leading to an increasing tendency to drop cases rather than prosecute them (Home Office, 1993, table 6.2).

There were also measures affecting specific offenses. For example, from 1993 onwards, the police were increasingly likely to charge assault offenders with "common assault" rather than "wounding."

There were two main reasons why the time served and sentence length for homicide increased in England:

  • Murder convictions (carrying a mandatory life sentence) increased, whereas manslaughter convictions fell. For example, in 1981, 126 offenders were convicted for murder and 262 for manslaughter, whereas in 1995, 214 offenders were convicted for murder and 241 for manslaughter.

  • The average time served by life-sentence prisoners increased, from 126 months in 1981 to 163 months in 1995.

    The English decreases in the probability of incarceration in 1987-91 were caused by --

    • pronouncements by the Home Office (roughly equivalent to the U.S. Department of Justice) encouraging judges and magistrates to avoid sending offenders to prison as far as possible, especially for non-violent offenses such as burglary and vehicle theft (Home Office, 1988, 1990a)
    • the downgrading of the offense of unauthorized taking of a motor vehicle to a non-indictable offense (in the Criminal Justice Act 1988), which encouraged judges to treat it as a relatively trivial offense and to use non-custodial penalties.

    As has been noted (Wilson,1997), up to and including the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (which greatly restricted the ability of sentencers to pass custodial sentences), Home Office policy makers were primarily concerned with reducing the prison population.

    In contrast, in America during the 1980's and continuing into the 1990's, growing emphasis was placed on retribution, deterrence, and incapacitation as major goals of the justice system. One way the change revealed itself was a rising risk of conviction for persons committing crime. Reasons varied across crime categories but, in general, the rise in risk of conviction occurred both because police made more arrests relative to the number of persons committing crime, and prosecutors obtained more convictions relative to the number of persons being arrested (figures 73-78). (These same trends cannot be investigated for England because there are no nationwide English data on arrests.)

    Another change was in prison release policies. Since around 1986 growth has occurred in the fraction of the sentence that prisoners served before they were released, especially for violent offenders (figures 61-66). For example, the U.S. Congress passed legislation requiring that Federal prisoners with sentences longer than 1 year serve at least 85% of their sentence (McDonald and Carlson, 1992, page 8).

    In England, Home Office policy changed in 1993. Judges and magistrates were encouraged to make more use of custodial sentences, and new laws were introduced to facilitate this. For example, the Criminal Justice Act 1993 repealed the provision in the Criminal Justice Act 1991 that barred judges from imposing longer sentences for persons with previous convictions. Another repealed provision had barred judges from punishing more severely a person who had harmed two or more victims than a person who had harmed one.

    These new English policies were popular with the general public. For example, in one 1993 survey, 88% thought that too lenient court sentences caused crime and 86% thought that prison sentences should be imposed to make criminals suffer (Kirby and Cusick, 1993).

    There are many possible explanations for changes in crime rates over time. However, many of the relevant factors -- such as the trend toward single parent families, the aging of the population, and routine activities -- vary similarly over time in America and England (Farrington and Langan, 1992). Hence, they cannot explain divergent crime trends between the two countries.

    Chart data - in spreadsheets
    Figure 73 Figure 74 Figure 75
    U.S. murder U.S. rape U.S. robbery
    Probability of:

    Probability of:

    Probability of:
    an arrested an arrested an arrested
    an offender offender an offender offender an offender offender
    being being being being being being
    Year arrested convicted arrested convicted arrested convicted
    1981 0.834

    0.407

    0.320

    0.301

    0.047

    0.361
    1982

    1983 0.915

    0.401

    0.360

    0.288

    0.054

    0.331
    1984

    1985

    1986 0.810

    0.558

    0.338

    0.478

    0.061

    0.388
    1987

    1988 0.920

    0.464

    0.348

    0.455

    0.060

    0.329
    1989

    1990 0.853

    0.534

    0.318

    0.518

    0.062

    0.376
    1991

    1992 0.824

    0.601

    0.299

    0.632

    0.058

    0.407
    1993

    1994 0.824

    0.591

    0.298

    0.630

    0.056

    0.382
    Figure 76 Figure 77 Figure 78
    U.S. assault U.S. burglary U.S. motor vehicle theft
    Probability of: Probability of: Probability of:
    an arrested an arrested an arrested
    an offender offender an offender offender an offender offender
    being being being being being being
    Year arrested convicted arrested convicted arrested convicted
    1981 0.081 0.113 0.028 0.368 0.064 0.090
    1982
    1983 0.101 0.126 0.031 0.420 0.066 0.144
    1984
    1985
    1986 0.116 0.155 0.032 0.377 0.077 0.187
    1987
    1988 0.122 0.128 0.032 0.342 0.086 0.160
    1989
    1990 0.152 0.163 0.034 0.404 0.077 0.203
    1991
    1992 0.139 0.178 0.035 0.429 0.074 0.215
    1993
    1994 0.140 0.177 0.035 0.409 0.076 0.190


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