The government tries to measure crime in many ways, including the latest survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics released Thursday. The National Crime Victimization Survey is meant to estimate how many people in the U.S. are victims of crime each year.
Like many crime studies, the survey is imperfect. But this year’s edition had more inconsistencies than most. In an attempt to provide a better picture of crime at the local level, the bureau changed its methodology. What it found when it surveyed new parts of the country, however, was that crime is even more difficult to measure than one might imagine.
The victims survey is an important tool for researchers because a significant percentage of crimes are never reported to police and so are not counted in other measures like the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program. By asking nearly 225,000 people if they’ve been victims of crime and whether they reported it to the police, the survey tries to fill in the gaps of other measures that can undercount crimes in communities where vulnerable populations do not go to the police for help as often.
But the new version of the survey produced unusual results compared to years past—much higher than expected in newly added areas (24.2 violent crimes per 1,000 people). The bureau cautions against comparing the new figures to numbers in 2015, which had a rate of 18.6, leaving the question of whether or not there is a trend of rising crime rates unanswered.
The BJS “concluded that it was not possible to isolate or quantify—and therefore adequately adjust for—the impact of each factor contributing to the increase in the victimization rates,” the report says.
Despite the limitations of the new survey, researchers believe that the revised methodology could help provide a more granular view of local crime trends in future years that is sorely needed.
“There has been this long desire from local agencies and researchers to get more data from smaller geographic areas,” says Min Xie, an associate professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland, who has worked with the data. “It’s more information, and it’s very exciting.”
The new victims survey finds that there were 5.7 million violent crimes in the U.S. last year — at a rate of 21.1 crimes per 1,000 people age 12 and older.
Overall, the report found that only 42 percent of violent victimizations were reported to police last year. When looking at the demographics of victims, there is a distinct disparity in the prevalence of crime depending on a person’s marital status. People who are separated were victims of violent crimes at a rate of 67.5 for every 1,000 people, more than double the rate for people who are divorced or even those who have never been married. Separated people also only reported their crimes 43 percent of the time.
The discrepancies can be explained by the tenuous situation people find themselves in when leaving relationships. “People who are separated are at higher risk for intimate partner violence,” says Dr. Alesha Durfee, an associate professor of Women and Gender studies at Arizona State University. “That’s when the batterer is more likely to resort to violence,” says Durfee.
The survey also examines the difference in how people of different races are victims of crime. Last year, people who identify as having two or more races were victims of crime at a rate of 59.8 per 1,000 people, close to triple the overall national average and more than twice the rate for any other group except for American Indians.