Serious crime is a term that shows up everywhere today: in the news, political speeches, radio and television talk shows, policy white papers, courses at universities, movies, music, magazines, and so forth. Oddly, despite the prevalence of the term, its meaning is far from clear. For example, many would argue that only so-called street crime—murder, assault, rape, robbery, burglary, larceny-theft, auto theft, and arson—is serious crime. Others would contend that polluting streams and rivers with dangerous chemicals by major corporations is serious crime. Still others would include organized crime and belonging to various types of criminal syndicates or gangs under the umbrella of serious crime. Some would include computer hacking as serious crime. And, of course, no post-9/11 discussion of serious crime can ignore terrorism (see Siegel 2004, 354-64). The fact of the matter is that the problem of fully defining ”serious crime” is itself a very knotty problem and could easily occupy a full volume (see, for example, Henry and Lanier 1988, 2001).

This article focuses on the traditional definition, the ”street crime” approach, used by the majority of U.S. law enforcement agencies. Those agencies participate in a national crime reporting system, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting System (commonly known as ”the UCR”). Serious crimes in the UCR include the following violent and property crimes: murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson. The first seven of these offenses were originally chosen in 1929 during the early development of the UCR because they were considered ”generally serious in nature”; arson was added to the list in 1970 (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2004; Maltz 1999, 4-15). These eight crimes are referred to as index crimes or Part I offenses.

How Much Serious Crime Exists?

This seems like an easy question to answer, but it is not. Crime measurement, while certainly no ”sexy” topic for most people, lies at the heart of our thinking, decision making, and policies regarding serious crime. Listening to contemporary politicians, talk show hosts, police chiefs, and other commentators on crime and crime policy, one easily gets the impression that reliable and exact numbers/rates of crime are readily known and available. The appearance of certainty that some of these spokespersons are able to generate is quite impressive in terms of persuasive skills. However, those skills aside, the unfortunate fact is that the data foundation is not nearly as solid as some would have us believe: Unhappily, in the case of serious crime, we only have a rough idea about how much exists. What we do have is a collection of indicators, each flawed in its own ways and useful in others.

Four main measures of crime are in common use by academic and government researchers/policy analysts. These four measures may be subclassified into two broad categories: the first category includes crime measurement based on government data—specifically, law enforcement information—and the second category includes crime measurement based on scientific sampling and survey research techniques. The crime measurement based on government agency data includes these two important instances: (1) the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, representing nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies’ reports of crimes known to police and (2) the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, a modernized and more comprehensive but, as of yet, not completely implemented version of the UCR (cf. Bureau of Justice Statistics 2004; Lindgren 2001). The crime measurement based on scientifically based survey information includes (1) the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), a nationwide sample of some forty-two thousand households and about seventy-five thousand individuals begun in 1973; and (2) self-report surveys of offending by various academic research institutes (for example, Monitoring the Future [Survey Research Center 2005]), policy researchers, and others (Cantor and Lynch 2000; Junger-Tas and Marshall 1999).

Current available information for the UCR estimates a violent crime rate of 465.5 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2004. That means that for every 100,000 people living in the United States in 2004, about 465 cases of murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault were reported to the police. This rate was down slightly (-2.2%) from the 2003 estimate. An important additional statistic provided by law enforcement data is the clearance rate, which describes the level of reported crimes that are resolved by arrest. For 2004, 46.3% of the reported violent crimes were cleared by arrest (Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI] 2005; see also web page ”Offenses Reported, Violent Crime”). With respect to property crime, in 2004, the UCR estimates a property crime rate of 3,517.1 or about 7.6 times greater than the violent rate. That is, about 3,517 cases of burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson were reported to the police for every 100,000 persons living in the United States in 2004. The property crime rate was also down slightly (-2.1%) from the 2003 estimate. The 2004 property crime clearance rate was—at 16.5%—much lower than the clearance rate for violent crime (FBI 2005).

The total volume of serious crime measured by victimization surveys always is considerably larger than that measured by official agency statistics. This is not surprising in view of the fact that many crimes are never reported to the police for a variety of reasons (for example, the belief that nothing can be done about it or fear of retaliation by the offender). The NCVS follows the UCR’s definition of index crimes as closely as possible with one important exception: Homicide is not included in the victim surveys and thus homicide is not included in the violent victimization estimates provided by the NCVS. The 2003 National Crime Victimization Survey estimate of the level of victimization by personal crimes—defined as both attempted and completed rape/sexual assaults, robberies, and assaults—is 23.5 per 1,000 persons ages 12 and older. In other words, based on interviews with a representative sample of U.S. households and persons, it is estimated that about 23 out of every 1,000 people ages 12 and older were the victim of rape/sexual assault, robbery, or assault in 2003. For property crimes—attempted and completed household burglaries, motor vehicle thefts, and personal thefts—the rate is 161.1 per 1,000 persons ages 12 and older (Catalano 2004, 3).

An important quality of the NCVS enables crime victimization comparisons between important subgroups of society. For instance, in 2003, males were more likely than females to be victims of robbery and assault (26.3 males per 1,000 persons ages 12 and older and 19.0 females). Also, black citizens are more likely than white citizens to be victimized by violent crime (29.1 blacks per 1,000 persons ages 12 and older and 21.5 for whites) (Catalano 2004, 6). As one moves upward through the household income levels of Americans, NCVS data show that the likelihood of violent victimization diminishes. Specifically, those having less than $7,500 annual household incomes are about three times as likely as those having greater than $75,000 annual household incomes to be victimized by a violent criminal act; this inverse relationship generally holds true for the intervening income categories as well (Catalano 2004, 6).

With respect to property crime, the 2003 NCVS estimates that property crime is more likely in the Western region of the United States (213.5 per 1,000 households) and in an urban setting (215.8 per 1,000 households) and in rented households (206.7 per 1,000 households) (Catalano 2004, 6). Once again, as one moves upward through the household income levels of Americans, the likelihood of property victimization of the household diminishes, though not as dramatically as for personal victimization. Specifically, those households having less than $7,500 annual incomes are about 1.1 times more likely to be victimized by a property crime than those households having an annual household income greater than $75,000; that inverse relationship generally holds true for the intervening income categories as well (Catalano 2004, 6).

What Are the Trends in Serious Crime?

Main data sources demonstrate a general decline, beginning around 1993, in three categories of serious crime (including homicide): total violent crime, victimizations reported to the police, and crimes recorded by the police (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2002a, slide 1). Furthermore, the NCVS reports declining household victimization rates since the early 1970s (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2002a, slide 2).

With respect specifically to homicide and personal violence, while regrettably the United States remains atop the industrial nations in terms of lethal violence (that is, homicide and gun-related robberies), the levels of homicide and other violence in the United States have generally declined through the 1990s; furthermore, the rates have remained relatively stable in the early 2000s (Blumstein and Wallman 2000, 1). After peaking in the early 1980s and then again in the early 1990s, the homicide rates declined through the 1990s to mid-1960s levels (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2002b; U.S. Census Bureau 2005). At its highest peak in 1991, the U.S. homicide rate was at 10.1 per 100,000 population; by 2002 this rate has been almost cut in half to 5.9 homicides per 100,000 population (U.S. Census Bureau 2005). Much effort has been made to explain this drop in violence in the United States. Respected analysts

Alfred Blumstein and Joel Wallman (2000) argue that no single cause accounts for this drop; instead, a credible explanation should incorporate a combination of factors including demographic factors, the decline of crack cocaine markets, the rejection of crack cocaine as the drug of choice by a new generation of young people (see the particularly interesting discussion in Johnson, Golub, and Dunlap 2000), aggressive police tactics, the strength of the economy, the growth of incarceration, and local and federal efforts to control gun crime.

The Globalization of Serious Crime

We have focused on what is variously called ”street crime” or ”ordinary crime” or, for some, ”serious crime.” Most of the time, when thinking of this kind of crime, we formulate the discussion in terms of one-criminal-and-one-victim. However, a fact that has become ever clearer in the twenty-first century is the global interconnectedness of many serious criminal acts. Dick Hobbs (2000, 172) comments that”.. . [t]he political economy of contemporary crime links street dealers with private armies in the Far East, market traders in provincial cities with sweat shops producing counterfeit designer clothing in Asia, and weekend cocaine, ecstasy, and amphetamine users with rogue governments and men of marketable violence all over the globe.” The topical areas of international criminology or transnational crime are becoming more and more popular in the academic disciplines of criminal justice and criminology. The reason for this growing popularity is straightforward: Much serious crime is international in a fundamental sense. Also, it is not unreasonable to expect that serious crime will be increasingly examined from an international perspective as we move further into the twenty-first century. As Hobbs has made clear, a sale of cocaine on any ordinary street corner on any ordinary day in any ordinary city is anything but simple, and can only be fully understood as an action embedded in a broader and interconnected world.

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