Race and crime in the United States

The relationship between race and crime in the United States has been a topic of public controversy and scholarly debate for more than a century.[1] The crime rate varies between racial groups. Most homicides in the United States are intraracial—the perpetrator and victim are of the same race. Research argues that the overrepresentation of some minorities in the criminal justice system can be explained by socioeconomic factors as well as racial discrimination by law enforcement and the judicial system.[2][3][4]

Crime data sources

In the United States, crime data are collected from three major sources:

The Uniform Crime Reports represent the primary source of data used in the calculation of official statistics regarding serious crimes such as murder and homicide, which is supplemented by the information provided through the NCVS and self-report studies, the latter being the best indicator of actual crime rates for minor offenses such as illegal substance abuse and petty theft. These crime data collection programs provide most of the statistical information utilized by criminologists and sociologists in their analysis of crime and the extent of its relationship to race.[5] Another form of data is that regarding the prison population.

Uniform Crime Reports (UCR)

Established in 1927, the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) program is a summary-based reporting system that collects data on crime reported to local and state law enforcement agencies across the US. The UCR system indexes crimes under two headings: Part I and Part II offenses. Part I offenses include: murder and non-negligent homicide; non-lethal violent crimes comprising robbery, forcible rape and aggravated assault; and property crimes comprising burglary, larceny/theft, motor vehicle theft and arson. Part II offenses include fraud, forgery/counterfeiting, embezzlement, simple assault, sex offenses, offenses against the family, drug and liquor offenses, weapons offenses and other non-violent offenses excluding traffic violations.[6]

There are fundamental limitations of the UCR system, including:[7]

  • Inaccuracy: UCR statistics do not represent the actual amount of criminal activity occurring in the United States. As it relies upon local law enforcement agency crime reports, the UCR program can only measure crime known to police and cannot provide an accurate representation of actual crime rates.[8]
  • Misrepresentation: The UCR program is focused upon street crime, and does not record information on many other types of crime, such as organized crime, corporate crime or federal crime. Further, law enforcement agencies can provide inadvertently misleading data as a result of local policing practices. These factors can lead to misrepresentations regarding the nature and extent of criminal activity in the United States.[9]
  • Manipulation: UCR data are capable of being manipulated by local law enforcement agencies. Information is supplied voluntarily to the UCR program, and manipulation of data can occur at the local level.[10]
  • Race and Ethnicity: The UCR tracks crime for the racial category of "White" to include both Hispanic and non-Hispanic ethnicities. According to the ACLU, with over 50 million Latinos residing in the United States, this hides the incarceration rates for Latinos vis-à-vis marijuana-related offenses, as they are considered "White" with respect to the UCR.[11]

As a response to these and other limitations, a new system of crime data collection was established in 1988 as an outgrowth of the UCR system. The National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) is an incident-based reporting system that will collect more comprehensive and detailed data on crime from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. As it is still under development, NIBRS coverage is not yet nationwide.[12]

National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)

The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) program, established in 1972, is a national survey of a representative sample of households in the United States which covers the frequency of crime victimization and the characteristics and consequences of victimization. The primary purpose behind the NCVS program is to gather information on crimes that were not reported to police, though information is also collected on reported crimes. The survey collects data on rape, assault, robbery, burglary, personal and household larceny and motor vehicle theft. The NCVS also includes supplemental questions which allow information to be gathered on tangentially relevant issues such as school violence, attitudes towards law enforcement or perceptions regarding crime.[13]

There are fundamental limitations to the NCVS program, including:[14]

  • Reliability: NCVS statistics do not represent verified or evidenced instances of victimization. As it depends upon the recollection of the individuals surveyed, the NCVS cannot distinguish between true and fabricated claims of victimization, nor can it verify the truth of the severity of the reported incidents. Further, the NCVS cannot detect cases of victimization where the victim is too traumatized to report. These factors can contribute to deficits in the reliability of NCVS statistics.[15]
  • Misrepresentation: The NCVS program is focused upon metropolitan and urban areas, and does not adequately cover suburban and rural regions. This can lead to misrepresentations regarding the nature and extent of victimization in the United States.[15]

Comparison of UCR and NCVS data

According to the NCVS for 1992–2000, 43% of violent criminal acts, and 53% of serious violent crime (not verbal threats, or cuts and bruises) were reported to the police. Overall, black (49%) and Native Americans (48%) victims reported most often, higher than whites (42%) and Asians (40%). Serious violent crime and aggravated assault against blacks (58% and 61%) and Native Americans (55% and 59%) was reported more often than against whites (51% and 54%) or Asians (50% and 51%). Native Americans were unusually unlikely to report a robbery (45%), as with Asians and a simple assault (31%).[16]

Despite the differences in the amount of crime reported, comparisons of the UCR and NCVS data sets show there to be a high degree of correspondence between the two systems.[17] This correspondence extends to the racial demography of both perpetrators and victims of violent crime reported in both systems.[18]

Classification of Hispanics

The UCR classifies most Hispanics into the "white" category. The NCVS classifies some Hispanic criminals as "white" and some as "other race". The victim categories for the NCVS are more distinct.

According to a report by the National Council of La Raza, research obstacles undermine the census of Latinos in prison, and "Latinos in the criminal justice system are seriously undercounted. The true extent of the overrepresentation of Latinos in the system probably is significantly greater than researchers have been able to document. Lack of empirical data on Latinos is partially due to prisons' failures to document race at intake, or recording practices that historically have classified Latinos as white.[19]

Overall the FBI didn't include a 'Latino' or 'Hispanic' category until recently and 93% of Hispanics are classified as "white" by law enforcement officers (irrespective of their ancestry) often inflating the amount of crimes attributed to whites.[20][21]