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How are statistics on unreported crimes, such as sexual assault, collected?

Source: 6689062

 

All crime is under-reported. The ‘unknown’ figure of crime (i.e. the total reported and unreported crimes) is called the ‘dark figure’ of crime.

There are several ways to get at the dark figure. The most common is through representative victimization surveys. These are quite common in the US and Europe, and there are even some decent cross-national victimization surveys (ICVS). Victims surveys essentially ask respondents if they have been victimized over the past 12 months, in what way, and how many times.

Victimization surveys-if representative-can give a more accurate view of the prevalence of certain under-reported types of crime, such as sexual assault. Of course, there will still be under-reporting (people will not want to tell interviewers about touchy subjects), and respondents are known to telescope (i.e. remember and recount events that happened outside the time period), but in general victimization surveys are considered a reliable source for under-reported crimes.

Another, lesser used option, is to get raw, anonymous accident and emergency data from hospitals (see Jonathan Shepherd’s work). A&E data are limited of course by severity – not all sexual assault victims (or physical assault victims for that matter) will go to the emergency room for care. But again, it avoids the issues involved in reporting (particularly sensitive) crimes to the police.

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Using the example of Sexual Assault in Canada, Statistics Canada conducts a General Social Survey on Victimization which had a 75% response rate. They incorporate these results from the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) survey, which comes from the police. Information about this can be found on page 16 of this report from 2004.

Limitations are briefly discussed afterwards. Another problem not mentioned is that in UCR, only the “most serious offence” is counted, and it counts as one unit — even if a person has been arrested for. As stated here, on the StatsCan website, “It is difficult to make comparisons between data reported by police and data from other sectors of the criminal justice system (i.e., courts and corrections). There is no single unit of count (i.e., incidents, offences, charges, cases or persons) which is defined consistently across the major sectors of the justice system. As well, charges actually laid can be different from the most serious offence by which incidents are categorized. In addition, the number and type of charges laid by police may change at the pre-court stage or during the court process. Time lags between the various stages of the justice process also make comparisons difficult.”

So that further complicates things.

My background is in Sociology, and coming from that perspective, I would also add that there is a phenomenological limitation to the self-reporting surveys, as what one person considers a “sexual assault” might not be considered a “sexual assault” (or other crime being measured) by another person. For example, someone who does not realize that they can say “no” to his/her partner. Likewise, someone who gets blackout drunk and gets raped while blacked out may consider that their own night of bad decisions, as opposed to rape.

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This is a difficult area to study and as the other posts have mentioned these unreported crimes are referred to as the “dark figure of crime.” The best and most utilized way to go about determining the prevalence of these unreported crimes is the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). It doesn’t utilize official statistics like the Uniform Crime Report (UCR). The NCVS attempts to get at these lower reported crimes, such as sexual assault and victimization, but even when utilizing self report surveys some people are still reluctant to report victimization. It is difficult to asses how accurate they are and unfortunately there isn’t really a good answer to the last part of your question. Any introductory text book to criminal justice or criminology will have a chapter dedicated to how we get at crime statistics and will discuss all of this in detail if you are interested in more information.

BLB99

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The Sociological Mail

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