The Distribution of Violent and Nonviolent Crime

While minor violent acts are fairly common, especially among children and young people, it is clear that serious violent crime is statistically much rarer than other forms of crime. The prevalence of theft in cohort studies is much higher than the prevalence of serious violence (Farrington et al., 2008). The incidence of violence is “rare,” in a criminal career, write Piquero and colleagues, “except for a small group of chronic offenders who are responsible for a majority of the violent offenses” (Piquero, Jennings, & Barnes, 2012, p. 171). This imbalance indicates that additional information is necessary to understand how those who commit serious violent crimes are different from the sea of other offenders.

The central thesis of Zimring and Hawkins’s (1997) book, Crime Is Not the Problem, is that violence, not “crime,” has set the United States apart from other industrialized nations. Crime is not evenly distributed across countries, regions, states, or cities. More importantly, it is not distributed in the same way that nonviolent crime is distributed. For example, Zimring and Hawkins and others have noted that while most western industrialized countries have low rates of violence, most do have very high rates of property crime. The top ten countries in 1990 for violent crime were (in alphabetical order) Aruba, the Bahamas, Botswana, Grenada, Jamaica, Samoa, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, Swaziland, and the United States.1 By contrast, the top ten countries for theft crime were Aruba, Australia, Bermuda, Denmark, England and Wales, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Scotland, Sweden, and the United States.

U.S. Violent Crime Rates 1960-2013

Figure 1.3 U.S. Violent Crime Rates 1960-2013.

Trends in violent and nonviolent crime, while correlated, are not in perfect sync, either. As with micro-level age-crime trends that display offending patterns over time, graphs of crime trends that are disaggregated by crime type often show distinct differences between measures of violent offending and nonviolent offending. Figures by Jenson and Howard (1999) show trends in juvenile arrests for 1987-1997. Property crimes were generally flat during this period while violent crimes exhibited a huge increase and decrease, suggesting that something was causing surges in violent offending among juveniles. Figures 1.3 and 1.4 display the trends in Uniform Crime Report data for the violent crime rate and the property crime rate for the United States. If violent and property crime were being caused by exactly the same factors, we would expect them to trend up and down at the same time. While there are large increases in both types of crime that begin in the early 1960s and last until the mid-1970s, violent crime continued to evidence major increases until approximately 1992, when epidemic levels were attributed to gun violence associated with the crack cocaine market (Blumstein, 1995). Property crime, by contrast, varies around a constant mean during the period 1975 until about 1991. Between 1961 and 1975, violent crime increased by a factor of 2.5; property crime increased by a factor of 4.2. Between 1975 and 1991, violent crime increased by 57.5% while property crime increased by only 7%. Property crime and violent crime have since been in decline.

Even the timing of violent and nonviolent crime differs. Serious violent offenses tend to occur late at night, while theft and burglary tend to occur during the day

U.S. Property Crime Rates 1960-2013

Figure 1.4 U.S. Property Crime Rates 1960-2013.

(with some exceptions such as commercial burglary). Furthermore, some authors have reported differential associations between seasonal measures and violent and property crime (Hipp, Bauer, Curran, and Bollen, 2004).

The existence of sex differences in delinquency and criminality has consistently been observed across geographic regions, historical periods, age, and socioeconomic status(SES) (e.g., Giordano & Cernkovich, 1997). The finding is so consistent that Steffensmeier and Allan (1996) state that “Women are always and everywhere less likely than men to commit criminal acts” (p. 459). While disproportionate arrests and self-reported offending for males is seen in almost all types of crime, they are consistently higher for violent crimes than they are for nonviolent crimes (e.g., Schmalleger, 2009; Steffensmeier & Allan, 1996). This has led to more speculation about why men are more “violent” than why men are more “deviant”

We have observed over the years that the “invariant” (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990) age-crime curve is different for violent and nonviolent crime (e.g., Steffensmeier, Allan, Harer, & Streifel, 1989). Loeber and colleagues remark that the age-crime differs depending on characteristics of offenses and offenders (Loeber, Farrington, Stouthamer-Loeber, & White, 2008). In their sample, serious violence peaks later than serious theft. Further, the amplitude for violence is slightly lower (Farrington et al., 2008). Farrington et al. (2008) conclude, “We found more differences than similarities between delinquency career parameters of violence and theft” (p. 100). In two cohorts of data, the prevalence of theft was much higher than the prevalence of violence (though they did not measure any minor violence). The frequency of theft was also higher than that for violence in most comparisons. Serious violence tended to be more persistent than theft as well. Tremblay and Nagin (2005) conclude that if we extend our data to early life, the peak of frequency of physical aggression for most people is actually between ages two and four.

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