The use of crime data has been on the increase in the recent past. For instance, many organizations such as Forbes have, on many occasions, used crime data reports to compile a list of ‘America’s Safest Cities’, with the hope of encouraging people as well as law enforcers to improve their respective roles as agents of security (Skogan & Hartnett, 2007). However, many have warned that methodologies used in reporting may not expressly offer the most accurate data one may need to make an accurate judgment on cities’ security issues. The common worry is that any form of comparison with the help of these data may lead to simplistic analyses likely to mislead the people, hence leading to wrong perceptions as far as securities of the cities are concerned (Felson, 2008).
The most commonly used primary crime data reporting that is commonly used in the measuring status and level of crime are surveys and official records collected, compiled, and analyzed by government agencies. Some of the agencies involved in the data collection and compilation include the federal government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The data analysts normally use these techniques to help them quantify the nature as well as the extent of criminal behavior and the personality, attitudes, and background of the criminal offenders (Clarke & Felson, 1993; National Research Council US, 2004). Self-reporting has also gained popularity in recent years, with the hope that criminal offenders’ ability to admit they’re criminal past is the best way to compile true and valid crime data. However, there have been several complaints that criminal offenders tend to forget the small crimes they committed, especially when they were involved in much bigger crimes in the past. But so far, it is tipped to be one of the most accurate forms of data collection that would help the federal government get more accurate information on crime. Critically, one would wonder how accurate the crime data sources are; how the data are collected; and finally the validity of the findings. This paper discusses the process of reporting crime data each year to the federal government. Secondly, it evaluates the accuracy of the data. Finally, it addresses how self-reporting can be skewed to improve the statistics.
Annual Data Reporting technique and Criteria
The federal government has in many years received its crime data through state agencies. Of most significance is the increased application of technology in crime data reporting that gained popularity at the turn of the 21st Century (Sampson& Laub, 1993). The Federal government has contracted certain bodies to collect and report crime data for its use to beef up security in the entire United States.
The Uniform Crime Report (UCR)
This is the official data used by the Federal Government in its effort to improve security in the United States. Data is collected and reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigations at the local departments of police. The Uniform Crime Reports include crimes that have been reported to the local law enforcers in addition to the number of arrests that police agencies have made. In the history of the United States, the Uniform Crime Report is the most commonly known source of official criminal statistics (Reckless, 1991; Matza, 1994). The FBI receives and compiles records of crime from various police departments, which are 17,000 in number in the entire United States.
The FBI has categorized crimes in different units for ease of analysis. Part one crime includes “murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, arson, and motor vehicle theft” (Matsueda & Heimer, 1997, p.122). The tallying is done by the FBI office, which also publishes the information on cases that were reported by city, county, standard metropolitan, statistical area, and geographical divisions of the United States. Other than the statistics of the crime cases and reports, the Uniform Crime Report do also includes the number and characteristics of the people involved in various crimes in terms of age, race, and gender (Matsueda & Heimer, 1997). The only exception for the latter is in traffic violations; categorized under other crimes or Part Two crimes.
Methods Used in the Compilation of the Uniform Crime Report
Crime reporting methodology in the United States is quite complex as far as the processes are concerned (Kornhauser, 1998). Every month law enforcement agencies report cases of Part One crimes that they have come across in their line of duty. The information in these records contains cases where victims have complained; where officers encountered the incidences; or any other sources that the agency has received through individual reports (Eck & Weisburd, 1995).
The agencies have put in place mechanisms to guide the processes of establishing the authenticity of the reported cases of crime. In cases where criminal complaints have been found through investigations to be unfounded or just false claims by the reporter, the case is dismissed or eliminated from the list of crime counts in the records (Bottoms & Wiles, 2002). However, it is realized that the number of real offenses that have been known is reported to the FBI even if one is arrested or not about the criminal case in question (Bottoms & Wiles, 2002). The report also does not consider whether or not anyone has been arrested about the crime, or if the stolen property has been recovered, or prosecution kicks off (Felson, 2008).
In the expression of crime data, the Uniform Crime Report applies three different methods. The first method involves the inclusion of the reported crimes to the police, in addition to the arrests made which are being expressed in the form of raw figures. For example, reported data can be stated as “An estimated 17,034 persons were murdered nationwide in 2007”. Secondly, computation of crime rate is done in the form of rate per 100,000 people. In other words, if the reported data from UCR shows that the rate of murder was 6.9 in 2007, it, therefore, means that about 7 people in every 1000 were murdered in that year, (i.e. between January and December of 2007).
The next computation involves the calculation of changes in the rates of crime over time. The expression may involve such statements as “The number of murders increased by 1.6% between 2007 and 2008, and decreased by 1.3% between June 30 and December 31, 2006.”
Rates of Clearance
Reports by the law enforcement agencies also include those cases of crimes that were cleared (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 2000). In principle, there are two ways in which crimes can be cleared in the United States’ justice system: the first is when at least one person suspected to have been involved in the specific crime is arrested, charged, and turned over to the court for prosecution; and secondly, when certain exceptional elements that are more than the police’s ability to control precludes the physical arrest of the offender (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 2000). For example, a case where an offender leaves the country after committing a crime may be beyond the police’s ability to arrest him or her, thus warranting the clearance of the case. Other data that are normally cleared are those of arrested juveniles, cases of property that are stolen but recovered, and detailed information related to criminal homicide.
Studies indicate that about 20% of all reported Part I crimes are cleared by arrest every year (Sherman, 2005). It is also reported that more serious crimes (e.g. murder, rape, and sodomy) are cleared at higher rates than less serious property crimes such as petty theft. According to Sherman (2005), different accounts lead to this clearance rate, i.e.:
- The role of media: media tend to give concentrated attention to serious crimes, thus influencing the police and other agencies concerned to devote more time and resources to the investigation
- If there is the likelihood of a prior association between victims of serious crimes and their attackers, a fact that will aid police in the investigations of the case to establish the whole case
- Even in the case where they failed to know each other beforehand, violent crime victims, as well as offenders, do interact to speed up the identification
- Serious violent crimes normally have physical evidence to base the process of identifying offenders or suspects, hence aiding the law enforcement officers to carry out the process
Review and Evaluation of the Uniform Crime Data Report
There has been constant concern on the accuracy of crime data reported by the Uniform Crime Data, despite its constant use as the main source of information. Some of the leading concerns related to this source are in the reporting practices, law enforcement practices, and problems that emerge from the methodologies used.
- Reporting Practices; from criminologists’ perspectives, many victims of serious crimes never report the incidences to the authority concerned, preferring for mutual settling of the case at a personal level (Sherman, 2005). It thus follows that these cases are never recorded as part of the Uniform Crime Report data. Studies have shown that there are varied reasons that victims cite for failure to report some cases. While some do not have faith in the police’s ability to solve the cases, others do not just trust the police with certain information (Sherman, 2005). Other reasons are: some do not have property insurance, hence strongly believe that reporting such cases as theft has no significance; others fear that they may face reprisal from the family of the offender. Some also fear possible reprisal from their spouse or lover in cases of family violence (Sherman, 2005). Research indicates that less than 40% of the crimes are reported to the authority concerned (police) (Sherman, Farrington & Welsh, 2002). The common justification by the victims for failure to report the cases is that it all involves private matters and no external intervention was warranted (Sherman, Farrington & Welsh, 2002). Some say that the victimization was not all that significant, hence did not need any special attention from the police. It, therefore, follows that Uniform Crime Report omits such cases in the final tally of the crime cases; thus underreporting the total number of annual criminal incidences for the Federal Governments.
- Law Enforcement Practices; there is substantial evidence that the police department’s recording and reporting of criminal and delinquent activity also interfere with the validity or credibility of the information. There are several cases where investigations have revealed that police misreport cases. For example, it has been revealed that sometimes police report incidences of trespass as burglary, or an assault on a woman as an attempted rape. This is normally due to a loose definition of crime. At the same time, some people pay too much attention to the guidelines given by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (Sherman, Farrington & Welsh, 2002). According to Sherman, Farrington & Welsh (2002), these shortcomings in the reporting of cases are what explain the inter-jurisdictional variances in crime. in specific cases of crime like arson, the likelihood of serious misreporting or lack of reporting emerges when departments of fire fail to report the case to the police or Federal Bureau of Investigations, with such claims as accidents, or spontaneous spread of fire (Sherman, Farrington & Welsh, 2002). There have also been cases of systematic errors, mostly from local police officers. Some cases have been noted where the counting is done immediately after a formal booking procedure has been done, yet the UCR requirement is that formal counting is done if the suspect is released without facing any formal charge. In one survey, it was revealed that there is normally an error of about 10% for all the part I offenses reported (UNESC, 2002). Moreover, some serious claims have been made that police are prone to deliberate alteration of the data to improve the public image of their department. For example, the department of police with interest in such may alter the report by lowering the crime rate figures by classifying attempted rape as a normal family disagreement and verbal exchange or burglary as a mere trespass that is less significant. Ironically, it is noted that boosting police efficiency and professionalism may lead to crime rates increase (Skogan & Hartnett, 2007). That is, as many people increasingly develop confidence in the police, they are likely to be more motivated to report the crime. It, therefore, follows that a higher crime rate may occur as departments tend to adopt more sophisticated computer technology and recruit highly qualified and technical people to the department of criminal investigation unit (Skogan & Hartnett, 2007).
- Methodological Problems; according to research findings, some of the most common methodological issues that have been found to affect Uniform Crime Report’s credibility are as follows:
- No federal crimes are reported;
- Reports are known to be voluntary, hence there is a lot of variance in accuracy and completeness of the data;
- There’s evidence suggesting that not all police departments submit reports as required by the UCR;
- The Federal Bureau of Investigations normally uses estimates in the total tabulation of the crime reported as well as a projection of reports;
- In some cases of multiple crimes committed by one individual, only the serious ones are recorded by the police. For instance, if a cocaine addict is accused of rape, robbery, and murder, the final count by the police will be mainly murder, ignoring other cases which are considered for the recording. This leaves many cases unrecorded because they are assumed lesser charges about murder
- While some crimes are normally listed as single offenses, others are listed as multiple ones. For example, if a person robs five people in a bar, it would be considered as one incident of robbery, attracting one charge of robbery. However, if the same person assaults his five victims, the case is recorded as five separate incidences of assaults, attracting five different charges;
- Some of the incomplete acts of crime are merged and lumped together with cases that are more complete;
- There are critical differences that exist between the definition of crimes according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations and that of several states of the United States (Skogan & Hartnett, 2007).
National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS)
A National Incident-Based Reporting System is a program that was designed in 1982 to collect detailed data on crimes as reported. Rather than submitting statements of resulting arrests, this program requires that local police agencies provide at least some brief account of each incident and arrest, including the incident, victim, and the information about the offender (Waller, 2006; Welsh & Farrington, 2006).
The FBI is provided with information from the law enforcement authorities. The method of information delivery is based on the criminal incidences that involve 46 specific offenses, that include the 8 Part One crimes within their jurisdiction. Some of the crime categories included in this expanded crime category are such cases as “embezzlement, blackmail, cases related to drug, and bribery and many other cases” (Welsh & Farrington, 2006, p.73). This will eventually allow the collection of national data which is eventually placed on a national database for ease of access. So far, slightly over 20 states have implemented this method in their crime data collection (Felson, 2008). The main aim of this process is to bring some uniformity in the cross-jurisdiction of reporting crime and lead in the improvement of the accuracy of the eventual national crime data.
Measuring Crime Through Self-Report
A self-report survey has emerged as a very important way of measuring crime data. In this case, people are asked what their opinion as far as values, attitudes, and beliefs are concerned. In this aspect, people are asked about their personal experience with criminal activities (Hirschi & Michel, 1996). Their characteristics such as beliefs and attitudes are measured and compared with those of other people with no criminal records. Surveys involve a sampling process to get the representative data for analysis.
Self-reporting to Improve Statistics
There are ways in which self-reporting can be used in a skewed manner to improve statistics. For a criminologist to get survey data that is representative of the whole members of the society, it would be important to adopt a cross-national survey (Miller, 1998). For example, students who attend high school may be interviewed to get a national representation of what perception people have of crime. With this kind of interview, biasness would be reduced since the data collected is representative of all people from all backgrounds as far as economic and social status is concerned (WHO, 2004). For instance, interviews of students from all backgrounds will include those from various races, cultures, rich, middle class and poor, and gender. Cross-national surveys are important in measuring a large population in an easy way (WHO, 2004).
Critics have suggested that there is no way one would be expected to sincerely acknowledge his or her use of drugs or to have committed an offense. Some studies have also indicated that reporting accuracy differed in terms of racial, ethnic, and gender basis. For example, a recent survey revealed that although girls are more willing to disclose their drug use, Latino girls were less willing to report their involvement with drugs, fearing it would perceive them badly (WHO, 2004). Such reluctance in reporting may lead to underreporting of cases. In another study, African Americans were found to be less willing to report traffic offenses (Welsh & Farrington, 2006). Moreover, other studies have also shown that self-reporting can only address mild offenses while ignoring hard-core cases of criminal activities. For example, a survey indicated that even if well over 90% of the school population voluntarily participate in a self-reporting survey, it is hard to know if those who never participated are the core members of hardcore criminals or those with persistent crime records (Welsh & Farrington, 2006). It is also noted that institutionalized youths are more delinquent in crime reporting than the general population (WHO, 2004). Furthermore, institutionalized youths are more misbehaving than the general youth population, hence the possibility of getting unrepresentative data is quite high in the final analysis (Welsh & Farrington, 2006).
Improving Self-Report Surveys
There is a need to employ some techniques to address the weaknesses and improve self-report data validity. It is important to adopt a strategy where people’s characteristics and records can be traced to ensure known groups of offenders are categorized in the survey. This can mainly improve cases that involve the youth. Studies suggest that when youths are asked whether they have even been arrested and sent to court, their response truly reflect their personal experience that may include tribulations and suffering as the cause of their misbehavior (Bursik, 2001).
When a national survey is conducted, data can be obtained from large national representative samples. In this aspect, it is important to encourage people to include all cases of minor offenses that they may have been involved in. The people may be encouraged to report their victimization experiences with such criminal offenses as attempted rape, rape, sexual assault, theft, burglary, petty thefts, and car-jacking. A lot of care should be given to the process of sampling so that a high completion rate of the data can be achieved in the long run.
Self-reporting helps the police get information on the personal characteristics of the offenders. Such character traits as attitudes, values, beliefs, and psychological profiles of the individuals are recorded to make accurate judgments on the crime rate and the possibility of one committing a similar crime in the future. Criminologists agree that these personal profiles of the criminals such as age, gender, and psychological are important in the analysis of crime potency. The times, places, and seasons of criminal activities may also be identified in the long run, thus giving the authorities humble time in preparation for crime reduction strategies.
Uniform Crime Report (UCR), National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), and Self-Report are some of the common methods used to report crime data in the United States. Notably, each has its pros and cons. The Uniform Crime Report contains data collected and reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigations. The information contained in this report includes crimes that have been reported to the local law enforcers and the total arrests that police agencies have made. This method of reporting is the most common in the history of the United States. The advantage this type of reporting has is that it can include characteristics of the offenders about age, gender, and race. Such information is critical in the analysis of crime reports and reduction strategies. However, a lot of information about criminal activities is not included. That is, this information is not able to offer exhaustive crime data as far as depth and validity are concerned.
In an attempt to solve the problem of less exhaustive data from the URC, a National Incident-Based Reporting System was designed by the state governments. It is a program meant to aid the collection of detailed data on crimes reported. The police officers provide some brief accounts of the incidences and arrests made. With the main aim of bringing some uniformity in the cross-jurisdiction of reporting crime, this approach would improve the data collection methodology by giving wider options. However, this approach is dependent on the ability of a state to monitor its crime records and the accuracy of the reporter. While some states have a well-structured mechanism to do carry out the process, some are yet to come up with a good structure that would warrant data accuracy.
Self-Reporting as a method of measuring crime data has a lot of potentials. Knowing the perception of the criminal offender helps to understand what motivates him or her into crime. For example, the issues of joblessness may lead to cases of idleness and drug addiction. These social problems of the society are deeper than what the law provides in terms of crime reduction strategies. From a criminologist’s perspective, eliminating crime will involve all these complex factors related to disjointed social problems in society. The tendency of the criminal offenders to ignore many petty offenses committed in the past can be eliminated by encouraging them to include all cases that they have encountered in their lives. This will be more effective if more crime categorization is made available during the survey. For example, victimized individuals who also face many other bigger problems may be given time to reflect his or their past to list everything that has happened to their lives in the past related to any form of abuse.
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