An Obsolete Paradigm

It is often the lead in articles or essays about the trajectory of criminology to cite the evidence of a paradigm shift in how the criminal justice enterprise responds to crime trends or to explore such shifts as crime rates fluctuate. However, one paradigm has totally outgrown its origins and is a candidate for dismantling rather than shifting. Our national system of describing the extent of crime in the U.S. is broken beyond repair and deserves to be replaced by a totally new paradigm (system). 

Since 1930, we have relied on the metrics generated by the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program to describe crime in the U.S., a program administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) based on voluntary contributions of data from law enforcement agencies. But it simply does not do so, even with its evolution into the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). Criminologists have long recognized the limited scope of the UCR summary crime data, leading to the creation of other supplementary crime data measurement vehicles. However, despite these measures, the United States still has no comprehensive national data on the amount of crime that has occurred. Most notably, the 1968 Presidential Crime Commission report on the Challenge of Crime in a Free Society lamented the absence of sound and complete data on crime in the U.S. and called for the creation of a National Crime Survey (NCS) that eventually evolved into the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). Since then, we have slowly attempted to make improvements that will lead to more robust data. Only in 2021 did the FBI end UCR summary-based crime data collection and move to require crime data contributions to adhere to NIBRS formats.

Admittedly, the shift to NIBRS will unleash a sea change in how we analyze crime data and use it for decision making. However, it still lacks the completeness of national crime reporting. In the landmark study of the National Academy of Sciences Panel on Modernizing the Nation’s Crime Statistics (sponsored by the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics), the panel members grappled with this reality and called out the absence of national statistics on crime that would fully inform policymaking on this critical subject. 

The original construct of UCR was based on the notion that a set of indicators of crime trends could be created around seven so-called index crimes.[1] Although this concept was never intended to describe all of the crimes reported to the police, these seven index crimes eventually became the basis of the FBI’s annual report, which has been titled “Crime in the U.S.” The public, led by thousands of press releases and media stories, has come to believe that this report does describe all of crime. Policymakers have gone so far as to use this incomplete data—UCR reported crimes—as the basis for allocating federal grant funds to states. The NAS report succinctly summarizes the situation in its statement that “The historical branding of UCR tabulations as Crime in the United States contributes to a somewhat exaggerated sense of comprehensiveness and absolute accuracy—for several reasons, not least of which is that the UCR logically cannot encompass total crime because not all crime is reported to the police.” [1]

The statement—”not all crime is reported to the police”—lies at the very heart of why our current crime data are inherently incomplete. It is a direct reference to the fact that not all “street crime” is reported and that state and local law enforcement are not the only entities responsible for overseeing violations of societally established norms (“street crime” or otherwise). Two significant gaps exist, in that: 1) official reports of crime from state and local law enforcement agencies cannot provide insight into unreported incidents, and 2) state and local law enforcement may not have jurisdiction over certain types of matters, such as cybercrime, corruption, environmental crime, or terrorism, and therefore cannot report on those incidents.

The NAS study identified the missing elements of a national crime report as including more complete data on just such incidents, those involving drug-related offenses, criminal acts where juveniles are involved, so-called white-collar crimes such as fraud and corruption, cybercrimes, crime against businesses, environmental crimes and crimes against animals. Just as one example, it is highly unlikely that we will know the full extent of fraudulent claims against all federal, state, and local governments in the face of the massive influx of funding from recent and pending Congressional action.

In proposing a set of crime classifications, the NAS panel recommended 11 major categories, 5 of which are not addressed in our current crime data collection systems. While there are parallel data systems that collect some of the missing data within these five crime categories, it remains unclear which federal agency, if any, has the authority to gather the information and aggregate it to give us anywhere near a complete estimate of crime in the United States. No federal or national entity has the assignment of estimating the total amount of crime that takes place in the United States. Without such leadership, we are left with an uninformed understanding of the health and wellness of communities throughout the country.

The invocation of the NCVS was, in part, to illuminate the so-called dark figure of crime based on the assumption that people would admit to being a victim even when they did not report that information to law enforcement. Studies have indeed shown a reluctance to report certain types of victimization, such as rape and sexual assault, to the police. However, even the NCVS misses behaviors that should be counted in an estimate of total crime. There are omissions by accident and omissions by design in these various data collections. The NCVS (and its predecessor, the NCS) chose to include mostly those crimes reported to the UCR summary program, to serve as a check on the reported crime data and to illuminate those crimes that were not reported to police. Gradually, through supplements, the NCVS began collecting periodic data on different types of crime than those included in the UCR, such as fraud, stalking, computer-assisted crime (cybercrime), and others. Reporting on these events through supplemental data collections is episodic and typically not done annually. 

Because it is a household survey of persons age 12 or older, the NCVS also does not measure commercial crime. Also, companies often do not report cybercrime or insider theft to law enforcement to avoid bad publicity. The result is that we know very little about the true extent of commercial crime.  Some law enforcement agencies have estimated that both individual and commercial cybercrime amounts to over a third of all the crimes reported to them, but the lack of coverage of commercial crimes keeps us from knowing the full extent. Even the improvements and extensions to the FBI data collections, such as the addition of human trafficking offenses, have not resulted in extensive reporting by all agencies. Federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, have been notoriously absent in reporting data to the UCR Program even though they are directly required to report by federal law; it should be noted that the FBI has made a strong effort in recent years to encourage that reporting.

All of these gaps in crime reporting mask the portrait of crime in the U.S. If there was a complete accounting of crime that could serve as the basis of policy formulation, including the distribution of federal funds to state and local agencies, there could be a substantial impact across the nation. This would move the country toward better prioritizing support for communities based on a more comprehensive measure of community wellness, rather than on the limited set of crime categories upon which crime is currently measured.

A significant impediment to solving this problem is that crime reporting, at least under UCR rules, bases the classification of crime on the varying and conflicting state penal codes, with complicated mapping of such codes to the national incident-based reporting definitions. This laborious approach fails to distinguish the varying degrees of harm among the categories, and in the end, creates opportunities for over and undercounting crime to suit particular political or budgetary arguments. Counting crimes in this way also perpetuates an ongoing problem with police-based crime statistics, which generally pay little attention to data about the victim and the consequences of crimes. While NIBRS made the forward-thinking steps of including the victim and offender relationship in its data model and allowing for reporting multiple offenses in an incident, the emphasis is still on the number of violations of state penal codes rather than on the impact or consequences of the incident. 

To the extent that a paradigm is commonly defined as a way of looking at something, we are long overdue for the development of a new paradigm of crime statistics. It is essential to consider both the concepts of classification and the rules of counting as we seek a better and more practical path to describing crime in the U.S. and its consequences. The NAS panel studying the modernization of crime statistics postulated that a meaningful classification of incidents found to be crimes would go beyond the traditional emphasis on street crime and include all crime categories. The panel also argued that the inflexibility and complications of a classification system based on individual state statutes should be replaced by a system based on the attributes of the event—in terms of what actually happened and its impact on the victim. In their conception of a newly constituted crime statistics system, the penal code citation is considered an attribute of the incident rather than the lynchpin for classifying and defining the event.

To be useful as a set of social indicators, the measurements we make must represent the crimes that are important for public inquiry and both the amount of loss and the fear that is engendered by such events. Omitting large segments of crime, as the current model does, is not a way to construct useful social indicators.

The NAS panel presented compelling arguments for building a new classification system (paradigm) that supports the inclusion of new crime types as they emerge and yet maintains the integrity of a national statistical system to describe crime and trends that could inform public policy. The panel proposed such a system, drawn from international models that were based on similar principles. The NAS model needs testing, evaluation, and exploration of its value to produce a lasting way to think about crime and its consequences and measure the well-being of our communities and our people.

A new paradigm that helps policymakers and the public appreciate the scope of crime, including the incidence and prevalence of specific types of crime that are of major concern, would lead to better decisions on funding and could focus improvement efforts based on evidence.  Such a more complete set of statistics would give researchers more robust data to evaluate new and innovative practices across the justice system.   Without knowing the scope of the problems to which we are dedicating national resources to solve, we are simply uninformed about the potential return on investment in attacking these issues.  

In the face of national efforts to reimagine justice, there is no better way to start measuring the impact of such changes than to begin a new concept of crime data collection and estimation that serves the needs of all stakeholders.  Part of the new paradigm will have to include the organizational and support efforts that empower a dedicated structure or organization to take this on and be accountable for implementation. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, as the principal federal statistical agency dedicated to collecting justice statistics, is an ideal candidate for managing this effort.

True reform is predicated on having good and comprehensive data to teach us about what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to change. As a nation, we should begin to make a new paradigm.   

Paul Wormeli, July 2021
Innovation Strategist, Wormeli Consulting
Executive Director Emeritus, the IJIS Institute
Adjunct Professor, the George Washington University
Former Deputy Administrator, LEAA, U.S. Department of Justice

[the author gratefully acknowledges critical review and commentary from James Lynch, Erica Smith, and Daniel Cork]

[1] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2016. Modernizing
Crime Statistics: Report 1: Defining and Classifying Crime. Washington, DC:
The National Academies Press. .

[1] Over time, the seven offense categories captured in the UCR summary program increased to ten categories, based on legislative mandates and decisions made by the FBI’s Advisory Policy Board. When the UCR summary program was retired on January 1, 2021, the ten offense categories were murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, human trafficking—involuntary servitude, human trafficking—commercial sex acts, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson.

2 thoughts on “An Obsolete Paradigm”

  1. Hi Paul,

    This is Kate, the UCR manager from CT. Really appreciate your thoughts. I agree with you that the nature of a lot of crime has changed, and there is no way the PDs see a lot of it. You hit on it, the shift away from street crime and into other areas!

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