3.3 Underreporting of Crime

It is difficult to determine the amount of crime that occurs in our communities every year because many crimes never come to the attention of the criminal justice system. There are more than a dozen different reasons that the majority of crimes go unreported to the proper criminal justice officials. The reasons include: victims or those who have “suffered direct or threatened physical, financial, or emotional harm as a result of the commission of a crime,” not reporting, victims not realizing they are victims, and offenders not getting caught (Victim Information, 2021). One of the most recent studies on the significance of the dark Figure of crime has analyzed unreported violent crime statistics from 2006 to 2010 (Solorzano, 2021). It showed that there are more than half a dozen major reasons for not reporting crime to law enforcement. They include that the crime incidents were: reported to another official; deemed unimportant by the victim; believed police wouldn’t/couldn’t help; protecting the offender(s); fear of retaliation; and others (2021).

Research reveals that on average, more than half of the nation’s violent crimes, or nearly 3.4 million violent victimizations per year, went unreported to the police between 2006 and 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS, 2012). Because of this underreporting of crime, criminologists often refer to this problem as the “dark figure” of crime. The phrase “dark figure” is used to recognize that a large portion of crime each year is unreported.The latest report from BJS shows that almost half of the 50-States in America provided insufficient 2021 data to the FBI crime data (BJS, 2022). Another most recent study detailed in Figure 3.1 shows that “fewer than half of crimes in the U.S. are reported, and fewer than half of reported crimes are solved” (Pew Research Center, 2020). Meaning that less than 25% of all crimes remain unsolved every year. This is illustrated in figure (3..) which combines multiple official data from the U.S. federal agencies.

Figure 3.1. Crime reporting and clearing in the U.S.

Underreporting is one of the biggest problems that continues to plague the criminal justice systems in America and most other nations. As with other major crime problems, underreporting is also highly preventable, especially if the key leaders of communities and universities are willing to end the dark figures of crime.

There are three general sources of crime statistics that will be covered in this chapter. They include the official statistics, which we often describe as reported statistics, self-report statistics, and victimization statistics. Each of these sources of crime statistics has pros and cons, and we will spend time discussing those as well. Additionally, we will discuss other key considerations regarding crime statistics. First is the importance of looking at crime trends over time. The other is relying upon statistics and research when developing policy. Finally, we will explain how data should be a tool that enhances the criminal justice system.

If we have accurate and reliable crime statistics, we can evaluate criminal justice policies and programs. For example, we could use crime statistics to see if incarcerating drug offenders is effective. Such effectiveness is studied in the correctional system via the ‘risk principal,’ or classifying people based on the level of risk.

Let us take the example of looking at the gap between reported and unreported crimes.

3.3.1 Some Reasons People May Not Report:

  1. The victim may not know a crime occurred.
  2. The offender is a member of the family, a friend, or an acquaintance.
  3. The victim thinks it is not worth reporting.
  4. The victim may fear retaliation.
  5. The victim may also have committed a crime.
  6. The victim does not trust the police.

3.3.2 Licenses and Attributions for Underreporting of Crime

Figure 3.1. Crime reporting and clearing in the U.S. by Trudi Radtke is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

“3.3. Underreporting of Crime” by Sam Arungwa is adapted from “2.1 Dark or Hidden Figure of Crime” by Shanell Sanchez in SOU-CCJ230 Introduction to the American Criminal Justice System by Alison S. Burke, David Carter, Brian Fedorek, Tiffany Morey, Lore Rutz-Burri, and Shanell Sanchez, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Edited for style, consistency, recency, and brevity; added DEI content.


Introduction to the American Criminal Justice System Copyright © by Sam Arungwa. All Rights Reserved.

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