A Life of Crime: The Hidden Truth About Criminal Activity

Bonny Mhlanga, The Home Office

A study was recently conducted in 34 prisons across England and Wales, in which 1,884 male prisoners (excluding sex offenders) who had received a custodial sentence during February and March 2000 were interviewed about their levels of criminal activity prior to their custody. The response rate to the survey was 90%. The questionnaire itself was divided into two main sections. The first concentrated on influencing factors, such as inmate's lifestyle (drugs and alcohol consumption), demographic, socio-economic and criminological factors, while the second section dealt with offences that had been committed during their time at liberty over the previous 18 months. Detailed questions were asked about the range of offences that had been committed and the frequency of offending. The interviews with offenders also included the completion of a Life Events Calendar. The Calendar was used to collect offending patterns for three offences; domestic burglary, theft of cars and theft from cars, that were to be looked at in more detail. The Calendar was also used to collect in-depth information about the respondents' lives over the 18 months prior to the survey, to enable the research team to construct a more complete picture of their lives and behavioural patterns. Evidence from the survey suggests that the completion of a Life Events Calendar enables the respondent to draw a more detailed and considered snapshot of their life, which leads to a more accurate assessment of their behaviour. In the case of offending behaviour, this often has the effect of down-weighting original estimates of crimes committed. The issue of the truthfulness of respondents was a major concern before the survey. The research team believed that the majority of respondents, over nine in ten, were able to recall events of the past 18 months both honestly and accurately, despite the complexity and sensitivity of the questionnaire content. The preliminary results of the survey were first published in the 2001 International Journal of Market Research (43)2: 217-40, which was a compilation of Award winning conference papers to the Market Research Society.

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Updated 05/20/2006