A short history of the collection of UN crime and justice statistics at the international level

The earliest known occasion that the collection of statistics on crime at the international level was considered was at the General Statistical Congress held in Brussels in 1853. The next known major effort was made at the International Congress on the Prevention and Repression of Crime held in London in 1872. At these meetings, the problem of comparability of definitions emerged and, until relatively recently, remained an issue in subsequent efforts. Also, the rationale for attempting the collection of such statistics at the international level and of making cross-national comparisons with those statistics was a source of difficulty.

The issue of definitions was still a central issue in the conclusions of the International Penal and Penitentiary Foundation (IPPF) in 1946. Soon after that, the IPPF handed over most of its functions to the newly-formed United Nations Organization. In the early years of the organization, the United Nations paid attention intermittently to the possibility of developing the collection of criminal statistics at the international level. There are relevant resolutions of the Economic and Social Council from 1948 and 1951, but, with the exception of one limited cross-national crime survey conducted over the period 1937-1946, little seems to have been done until the early 1970s when the present series of surveys was initiated by a resolution of the General Assembly.

The United Nations Surveys on Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems were started in 1977, covering different time intervals from 1970. Since 1998, the Survey is carried out at two years intervals. The questionnaire was developed and improved through expert group meetings hosted by: the School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University, New Jersey, 1981; the Criminal Justice Center, Sam Houston State University, Texas, 1983;  the Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Department of Justice, Washington DC, 1986; United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), 1991;the government of Argentina in Buenos Aires in 1997 and the government of Netherlands Veldhover 1998.Responding to the mandate of Council resolution 2005/23, an open-ended expert group on ways and means of improving crime data collection, research and analysis with a view to enhancing the work of UNODC and other relevant international entities met in Vienna in February 2006. Experts made recommendations to revise the questionnaire used for the United Nations Survey on Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems. On the basis of the experts' recommendations, the questionnaire for the Tenth Survey was revised in a way that maintains continuity with the questionnaires for the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth United Nations Surveys of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems, which covered the period 1995-2004. Particular attention was given to improving and clarifying definitions, and collecting data on context and metadata.

Other inter-governmental organizations, such as the International Police Organization (INTERPOL), the Council of Europe and the Organization of Economic Development have made attempts to collect similar statistics but have concentrated on statistics of recorded crime, rather than of the criminal justice system as a whole.

The development of the present database.

The administration of justice has traditionally been seen primarily as an extension of criminal law; in effect, its implementation in practice. The discipline which therefore dominated both the making of the law and the administration of justice was jurisprudence. The legal profession has always paid great attention to definitions but has tended to be unfamiliar with -- and skeptical of -- quantitative approaches. Legal specialists in international meetings have tended to take the position that each legal system has its own very specific set of definitions for what constitutes criminal acts and that comparison between them is of limited value. The early rationale for collecting and comparing statistics more broadly than just at the national level was originally a part of criminological etiology -- the search for the "causes" of crime. Such an origin is understandable as a product of the positivist optimism of using quantitative methods to establish explanations in the late nineteenth century.

The Second Survey, developed at the Rutgers expert meeting, was the first sweep that reflected an explicit change in rationale. The focus of the surveys shifted away from the causes of crime to the operations of criminal justice systems. This focus was more in keeping with the overall mission of the United Nations -- one of assisting governments in the management of criminal justice and calling upon governments to provide an official accounting to the international community of their criminal justice operations.

Figures for recorded crime are indicators of social behaviour but in this context are most importantly seen as indicators of the work load with which the agencies of the criminal justice system are faced. The remainder of the statistics are a record of how the system responds to that work load. Cross-national comparisons of different patterns of case-processing may generate a limited but useful picture of criminal justice in action. That may in turn prove to be a valid rationale for collecting statistics on crime and criminal justice at the international level.

Based on Burnham (Original paper, 1997)