Self-Report Data

Self-report studies are an important source of information about offenders and their offenses. In that respect, they often provide more information than do the UCR Program and the NCVS about the people who actually commit crimes. Self-report surveys ask people to reveal information about themselves and their own law violations. The basic assumption of self-report studies is that the assurance of anonymity and confidentiality will encourage people to be honest about their illegal activities.

Self-report studies were first used in the 1940s (Thornberry and Krone, 2000). Such surveys are typically given to adolescents, usually students in high school classes, and researchers often use college students as subjects for self-report studies. There are notable self-report surveys; for instance, the Monitoring the Future surveys. Monitoring the Future is an annual survey of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, under a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health. Since 1975, the survey has measured drug, alcohol, and cigarette use and related attitudes in 12th graders nationwide. Eighth and tenth graders were added to the survey in 1991. Overall, 41,675 students from 389 public and private schools participated in the 2013 survey (NIDA, 2014).

Other annual surveys include the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring II (ADAM II) program. Since 2007, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has sponsored the ADAM II data collection program in nine U.S. counties and the District of Columbia. ADAM II is an annual survey designed to gather information about the drug use of arrested adults. Another annual survey is conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), whose mission is to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on Americas communities. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) is the primary source of information on the prevalence, patterns, and consequences of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drug use and abuse and mental disorders in the U.S. civilian, noninstitutionalized population, aged 12 and older.

Results of Self-Report Studies

Self-report surveys are a way to learn more about the “dark figures of crime”—the individuals that don’t show up in official statistics. Researchers administering the first self-report survey studies found that there was an enormous amount of hidden crime in the United States. In fact, those early self-report crime surveys indicated that more than 90% of all Americans had committed crimes for which they could have been arrested and even imprisoned (Bohm and Haley, 2012). Other self-reported crime data indicate that many drug users started using drugs as juveniles, and that heroin addicts are most likely to commit crimes (Fagin, 2007). In addition, it has been found through self-report surveys that there is no difference in the amount of crime committed by lower-class and middle-class youth, even though lower-class youth are much more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated (Siegel, 2002).

According to Uniform Crime Reports, African Americans make up about 12% of the general population of the United States, yet they account for about 42% of violent crime arrests and 27% of property crime arrests (FBI, 2010b). Whites account for 70% of all arrests, while blacks are arrested for 28% of all crimes. Whites comprise 59% of arrests for violent crimes and 68% of arrests for property crimes (FBI, 2010b). However, nationwide studies using self-report questionnaires find that there are few differences in crime rates between whites and blacks (Huizinga and Elliott, 1987).

Drawbacks of Self-Report Measures

Although self-report surveys have established validity and reliability, they are sometimes criticized because not everyone may be candid about their illegal activities, and some may exaggerate their criminal acts. There is also a “missing cases” phenomenon that is a concern. Since surveys are often given to groups of individuals, such as high school students, some of the people who do not participate or are absent from school when the survey is administered may skew the results.

Comparing the Results of the UCR Program, the NCVS, and Self-Report Measures

There are significant differences between the various crime measures. As just indicated in the previous section, while African Americans are more frequently processed by the criminal justice system, self-report surveys suggest that there is no actual difference in the amount of crime engaged in by whites and blacks.

Looking at reported incidents of sexual assault, the UCR Program likely grossly underestimates the number of women who are sexually assaulted. NCVS results suggest that there are perhaps two to three times as many women assaulted than are reported in the UCR Program (Fagin, 2007). According to the NCVS, the rate of reported rapes and sexual assaults decreased from 2017 to 2018 from 40% to 25% (Morgan and Oudekerk, 2019). Crimes such as robbery, aggravated assault, and larceny-theft are all reported by the NCVS at rates two to three times greater than the rates given in UCR data (Fagin, 2007).

Again, according to NCVS findings, an estimated 43% of violent crime was reported to police in 2018, but only 38% of simple assault and 60% of aggravated assault were reported to the police (Morgan and Oudekerk, 2019).

Reviewing the long-term trends as indicated by both the UCR Program and the NCVS, while there is a great deal of unreported crime, there is congruence between these two important measures of crime when fluctuations in crime are considered. That is, both the UCR Program and NCVS show that crime has declined considerably since 1993, even though NCVS rates of victimization suggest that there is much crime that goes unreported. However, both measures indicate the same trends: Crime has declined considerably—at least up to 2015—according to both the UCR Program and the NCVS.

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