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Homicide is on the rise in Australia. Should we be concerned?

This article is by  Assistant Professor Terry Goldsworthy of Bond University and first appeared in The Conversation.

The latest report from the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) shows the homicide rate is increasing in Australia.

But should we be concerned and how does Australia compare to other similar countries? Is crime in general increasing or is the rise in the homicide rate a standout?

How much has the homicide rate risen?

The AIC runs the National Homicide Monitoring Program, which is Australia’s only national collection of data on homicide incidents, victims and offenders. The report classifies homicides as being domestic, acquaintance, stranger or unknown. The latest report covers the period 2019-20.

It shows the homicide rate has risen in Australia over this period by 16%. The homicide rate in 2019–20 was 1.02 incidents per 100,000 people, the highest rate since 2012–13. Within these incidents the rate of domestic and stranger homicides increased, while the rate of acquaintance homicide decreased for 2019-20.

In this period there were 261 homicide incidents, up 35 from the previous period. This is the highest number of murders since 2005-06.

The biggest increase was in homicides in which the relationship between the victim and offender was unknown or not stated. These accounted for 51 incidents, up 64% for 2019-20. Stranger homicides, 46 incidents, rose 35%. Domestic homicides, 81 incidents, rose only 5%.

What do we know about the homicide incidents

Males accounted for 87% of homicide offenders in 2019-20. The rate of offending for males increased to 2.45 per 100,000. That’s almost seven times the rate of female offending, which increased slightly to 0.36 per 100,000.

There were 278 victims, an increase of 38 over the previous year. Of these victims, 65% were male and 35% were female.

The most common cause of death for homicide victims was a stab wound: this accounted for 37% of deaths. This was followed by blunt force (19%) and gunshot wounds (13%). Other causes of death included strangulation, shaking, burns and poisoning.

Domestic homicides include intimate partner, child, spouse or sibling, and other family incidents. In 2019-20, the number of intimate partner homicides decreased to 45 incidents, the lowest number since records began in 1989-90. However, killing of a child by parents increased, while other categories remained stable.

Residential settings accounted for 57% of homicide incidents, while 28% occurred in a public setting such as a park or street.

New South Wales had the most murders with 85, followed by Victoria with 66. The Northern Territory had the biggest increase of 60% compared to the previous period, although the number of incidents remained small at just eight. Of the other states, Victoria recorded the next biggest increase compared to 2018-19, with homicide incidents increasing 46%. Western Australia and South Australia both recorded declines.

How Australia compares

Provisional data from the United States show a dramatic increase in the US murder rate in 2020. It rose from six homicides per 100,000 in 2019 to 7.8 per 100,000.

In England and Wales, the homicide rate for 2019-20 was 1.1 per 100,000 a rate similar to the previous year.

United Nations homicide data indicate the global homicide rate in 2018 was estimated to be 5.8 per 100,000. To put this in perspective, generally homicide rates around the world have been in decline: between 1990 and 2015, the world homicide rate fell by 20%. Indeed, the current rate of homicide in Australia is almost half of the peak rate of 1.88, which was recorded in 1992-93.

What about other crime in Australia?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) produces data on both reported crime to police and experiences of victims gathered through the Crime Victimisation Survey. This survey collects details about a range of personal and household crimes, such as assaults, breaking and entering, and theft. The victimisation survey may capture offences that were not reported to police.

For the 2019-20 period, the survey showed that those who experienced physical assaults, break and enters, sexual assaults, motor vehicle thefts and robberies had similar rates when compared to 2019-20.

In terms of reported crime, the period 2019-20 captures the beginning of the COVID pandemic, which had a significant impact on decreasing crime levels.

The ABS data for reported crime in 2020 show substantial decreases in break and enters, motor vehicle thefts and robbery. However, there was an increase in sexual assault reported during this period.

So why did homicide rates rise?

Some insight can be gained by looking at the motives for the homicides. In 36% of the incidents, there was an argument or personal dispute prior to the homicide. Drugs and money were recorded as a motivation in only 5% of incidents. There was no apparent motive in 10% of incidents, and revenge or jealousy accounted for just 3% of murders.

Alcohol and drugs were often present. Victims had consumed alcohol in 25% of cases and drugs in 28%. Offenders were reported to have consumed alcohol in 17% of incidents and drugs in 10%. It should be noted that the results for offenders rely on self-reporting or police observation, whereas toxicology reports are available for victims.

Where to from here?

Data collection needs to be improved to identify why so many homicide incidents are not able to be classified. This would seem to be primarily due to no relationship being stated or known.

Having investigated more than 25 homicides as a police officer, it is hard to fathom how a relationship status remains unknown in so many cases where the offender is identified. Such information is crucial is terms of investigative strategies, risk mitigation and crime prevention responses. This knowledge gap needs to be addressed.

The homicide rate increase is out of step with trends for most other crimes in Australia for the 2019-20 period and Australia compares well to international counterparts.

While the number of incidents is low compared to historical levels, we should be concerned this increase does not continue. For obvious reasons, homicides inflict the most harm on society and we must be vigilant about keeping them as low as possible.

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