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Australia’s homicide rate still dropping


by Terry Goldsworthy, Associate Professor in Criminal Justice and Criminology, Bond University, and Gaelle Brotto, Assistant Professor Criminology and Criminal Justice

Australia’s homicide rate has continued its overall downward trajectory in the latest crime data released last week.

In fact, in 2020-21, Australia recorded the second-lowest number of homicides since the Australian Institute of Criminology began compiling national statistics in 1989.

How does Australia compare with other nations? And do our perceptions of crime match the reality of Australia becoming a generally safer place to live?

Homicide in Australia

The National Homicide Monitoring Program is the only national data collection program for homicide incidents, victims and offenders.

According to the most recent report, there were 210 homicide incidents reported in Australia between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021, with 263 identified offenders. There were 221 homicide victims, nearly 70% of whom were men. Only nine incidents involved multiple victims.

This was the second-lowest annual homicide rate (0.82 per 100,000 people) since 1989-90. This period (2020-21) was at the height of the COVID pandemic, when lockdowns and other restrictions were in place in various localities.

Homicides had ticked upwards the previous year (2019-20), which included the start of the pandemic when lockdowns were similarly in place. There were 261 homicides reported that year, about 1.02 per 100,000 people.

While it’s difficult to firmly establish a direct causal relationship between coronavirus restrictions and crime rates, the 2019-20 homicide data does appear to be an aberration in the longer-term trend in Australia.

Overall, the national homicide rate has dropped steadily from a rate of 1.88 per 100,000 people in 1992-93 to 0.82 in 2020-21 – a decrease of 55% over nearly 30 years.

When it comes to the type of homicides occurring in Australia, domestic killings were the most common in 2020-21, accounting for about 36% of incidents. The rate of women killed in intimate partner homicides was 0.25 per 100,000 people, which is a decrease of 74% since 1989-90.

Men were overwhelmingly responsible for all homicides in 2020-21, accounting for 84% of perpetrators.

How do we compare to the rest of the world?

The 2019 United Nations Global Study on Homicide indicated that the world average homicide rate was 6.1 per 100,000 people in 2017, a rate inflated by the Americas with 17.2 per 100,000 people.

Data from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States shows the homicide rate in that country was 7.8 per 100,000 in 2021. This rate has been increasing over the last few years.

In 2022, the homicide rate in England and Wales was 1.2 per 100,000 people. There was a 23% increase in the number of homicide victims compared to March 2020-21, returning to pre-COVID levels.

Some 81% of homicides in the US involved the use of firearms, while in England and Wales, sharp instruments (including knives) were the most common methods of killing at 41%.

The latest Australian data shows knives were used in 38% of incidents and firearms in 11%.

Is the homicide rate reflective of general crime trends?

Overall, crime in Australia is also on the decline. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics Crime Victimisation survey, physical assaults are down 39% from 2008-09, face-to-face threatened assaults are down 44% and robberies are down 50%.

However, sexual assaults have increased by 66% over the same period. And experts say the vast majority of people who experience sexual assault don’t report it to police, meaning the true figure is much higher.

Do our perceptions match reality?

Criminologists Don Weatherburn and Sara Rahman examined the decline of crime in Australia in their recent book. They note that crime statistics overall began to decline in 2001, and by 2018, rates of the most common forms of crime had fallen between 40 and 80% and were lower than they’d been in twenty or in some cases thirty years.

However, perceptions of personal safety may not be aligning with these lower crime statistics.

The fear of crime is an emotional reaction to the expectation of being victimised by criminals. A person’s fear level can be influenced by a number of things, including their own life experiences, their media exposure, and their social and cultural environments.

The Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services measures perceptions of safety from the National Survey of Community Satisfaction with policing. In 2021-22, a vast majority of people (89%) declared feeling “safe” or “very safe” in their homes.

However, when asked about public places, the rates decreased significantly. Just over half of respondents (53.8%) said they felt safe walking alone in their neighbourhoods and a third (32.7%) felt safe when travelling on public transport.

The data, however, shows that crime in general, and homicide specifically, is declining. Australia is becoming a safer place to live.

This article was published in The Conversation.

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