Two sources of information, compiled by the federal government, provide data on crime in the United States. The FBI produces its annual Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), giving estimates of arrests and crimes reported to the police. The U.S. Justice Department also conducts an annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which is the product of an annual random sampling of households. The Victimization Survey picks up crimes not reported to the police.
The UCR reports Part I crimes in terms of both crimes known to the police and arrests. Part I crimes are reported in terms of arrests. Part II includes, but is not limited to, some victimless crimes. Since citizens often don't report victimless crimes and police find them difficult to detect, it makes sense to use arrest statistics for information on this type of crime. During 1996, law enforcement agencies made about 15 million arrests for Part II crimes. The highest arrest counts were for drug abuse violations, larceny‐thefts, and driving under the influence, each at 1.5 million.
One of the UCR's key features is the Crime Index, which is the sum of Part I crimes for a given year. In 1996, the Crime Index was 13.5 million offenses. Nonviolent property crimes made up almost 90 percent of the total number of index offenses.
The crime rate, or the number of Part I offenses that occurred in a given area for every 100,000 people living in the area, is calculated as follows: total Crime Index divided by population multiplied by 100,000 equals crime rate. The UCR also figures crime rates for specific crimes. For example, the national murder rate in 1997 was 770 murders per 100,000 people.
What does it mean when the official Part I crime rate increases? One or more of three things can be happening:
More people are committing crimes.
Offenders have higher individual crime rates.
A higher proportion of crimes committed are being reported or recorded.
An advantage of the UCR is that it includes homicides in its calculation of the violent crime rate (which the NCVS by its nature cannot). The main disadvantage of the UCR is that much crime is never reported to the police and never shows up in the UCR. Thus, UCR estimates of the volume and rates of crime are always lower than the actual frequencies of such occurrences because crime is subject to both nonreporting by citizens and nonrecording by the police. Trends in official statistics may be the result of changes in public reporting and police recording practices, not of actual changes in the amount of crime.
The NCVS is an ongoing survey of households that consists of interviews with 100,000 persons in 50,000 households twice each year. It asks residents of the United States about their victimizations from crime and reports on rape, sexual assault, robbery, both simple and aggravated assault, theft, household burglary, and motor vehicle theft. It omits murder and drug crimes. The latter is an important omission because a shift in criminal activity from an included crime (for example, burglary or robbery) to drug dealing would appear as a decrease in the overall crime rate when no actual decrease had occurred. NCVS data reveal the following facts about crime and victimization.
The actual amount of crime is several times greater than the UCR shows.
Crime touches about 23 million households in the United States each year.
The total personal cost of crime to victims is about $13 billion each year.
The chance of being the victim of a violent crime is much higher for young African‐American males than for any other group of the population.
Violent criminal victimizations are extremely rare events.
Most crimes against individuals are absorbed by the victims without reporting them to the police.
Drawbacks to this report are that some people may incorrectly remember events as crimes that were not crimes and the high cost of door‐to‐door interviewing.
One of the bigger myths about crime is that it is always increasing. The 1998 UCR shows that serious crime fell across the nation in 1997, the sixth consecutive annual decrease. Violent crimes declined by 5 percent, led by 9 percent decreases in murders and robberies. Property crimes declined by 4 percent, led by an 8 percent drop in arson. Similarly, the NCVS shows that the number of violent crimes fell more than 9 percent in 1995. Violent victimizations dropped from 10.9 million in 1994 to 9.9 million in 1995. Property crimes continued a 20‐year pattern of decreasing rates. Why is crime decreasing?
A strong economy
The booming economy of the 1990s has helped to reduce crime rates. It has provided legitimate jobs to some urban young people who had worked in the drug trade.
The age distribution in the United States has been changing. In 1980, more than 20 million people were between 15 and 19 years old. By 1990, that population group had dropped to 17.5 million. Similar drops have occurred in the 20–24 age group, a group with a high crime potential. Overall, the nation is aging, and older men don't commit as much crime as younger men.
Police manipulation of crime data
Senior police officials around the nation voiced concern in 1998 that the sharp drop in crime in the 1990s had produced pressure on police departments to show ever‐decreasing crime statistics. In 1998, charges were leveled against police officials in New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Boca Raton for falsely reporting crime statistics.
A common thread running through many of the incidents of police officials' alteration of crime statistics is that police commanders responded to pressure from politicians, the media, and the public to lower crime rates by downgrading felonies by intentionally mislabeling felonies, such as aggravated assault and burglary, as misdemeanors. Such a practice deflates rates of serious crimes and inflates rates of nonserious crimes. Experts say they believe these incidents do not mean that the nationwide drop in crime is illusory. They point to the fact that victimization data, which are not subject to police manipulation, indicate the same downward trend as the FBI's UCR.
The decline in the crack market
Crack has played a key role in pushing rates of violent crime up and down. When crack arrived in New York City in 1985, it created a big market for users and dealers. It was sold in small amounts that gave an intense high that required users to constantly find more. Thousands of unskilled, unemployed men from New York's poor inner‐city neighborhoods entered the crack business as sellers, and to protect themselves from business competitors, they acquired handguns. Due to the combination of the crack epidemic and the increased firepower of more handguns on the streets, instances of violent crime surged starting in 1985. Crime rates began to fall in 1991. The turning point came when youths began to turn against smoking or selling crack and police stepped up efforts to seize handguns from criminals and juveniles.
A deadly caution
Deadly violence by young people remains a pressing problem. A Department of Justice study shows that while the nation's overall homicide rate fell in 1997 to its lowest level in three decades, the number of firearm homicides by young people is still very high. The report offers no explanation for this discrepancy, but criminologists point to the spread of illegal handguns among young people that began with the start of the crack epidemic around 1985 as a major reason for the continuing high level of violence. The number of firearm homicides committed by those in the U.S. who are 25 and older declined between 1980 and 1997, by about 50 percent. Those crimes committed by adults ages 18–24 actually increased during the period by about the same percentage. The 6,076 killings by this age group in 1997, though fewer than the all‐time record of 8,171 gun homicides in 1993, is almost double the number reported in 1976, the year the FBI began compiling such statistics.