During the first two decades of the 20th century the police in England and Wales recorded an average of 90,000 indictable offences each year, a figure which increased to over 500,000 during the 1950s.
The crime rate consequently quadrupled from 250 crimes per 100,000 people in 1901 to 1,000 by 1950.
But the history of crime in the 20th century is dominated by the even sharper rise in offences recorded by the police since the late 1950s. During the 1960s there was acceleration in recorded crime: it was the only decade in the century where crime doubled. Crime continued to rise according to this measure for much of the remainder of the 20th century, with an average of over one million crimes recorded each year in the 1960s, increasing to two million during the 1970s, and 3.5m in the 1980s.
There is no simple answer as to why crime rates increased so markedly in the second half of the century. Over the period, there were significant changes to the types of offences recorded as crime, and how they are counted, making it difficult to accurately assess underlying trends in ‘real’ crime. Recorded crime levels have also been affected by the behaviour of the public in reporting crimes to the police. An increase in the number of burglaries reported, for example, may partly be due to the relatively recent need to inform the police in order to make an insurance claim, rather than an indication of any real increase in the level of burglary.
New inventions, creating new opportunities for misdemeanour, a growth in the value of ordinary people’s personal property, and the criminalisation of drug use have had real effects on crime levels during the 20th century. The most obvious example of an invention that has spurred crime is the motorcar: by 1991, a car was being reported stolen on average once every minute across England and Wales. Aeroplanes made international transport and smuggling easier, while the growing use of computers has created new kinds of offences.
Getting offensive. The chart shows recorded offences per 100,000 people in England and Wales during the 20th century.
The puzzle for today’s criminologists is to explain falling crime. Recorded offences reached a peak of 6m in 2003, and a steady decline has since been seen in most kinds of recorded crime, with particularly steep falls in some offences such as burglary. Some argue that improvements in security, particularly modern systems to prevent vehicle intrusion, have significantly reduced the opportunities for committing crime. Others contend that imprisonment, policing or demographic factors play the most important role.