Crime in the United States is described by annual Uniform Crime Reports by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and by annual National Crime Victimization Surveys by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In addition to the primary Uniform Crime Report known as Crime in the United States, the FBI publishes annual reports on hate crimes and on the status of law enforcement in the United States, and its definitions of crime are considered standard by many American law enforcement agencies. According to the FBI, index crime in the United States includes violent crime and property crime. Violent crime consists of four criminal offenses: murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault; property crime consists of burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, and arson.
Crime rates have varied over time in the United States. American crime rates generally rose after World War II, and peaked between the 1970s and early 1990s. Since the early 1990s, crime has declined in the United States, and current crime rates are approximately the same as those of the 1960s.
The likelihood of falling victim to crime relates to both demographic and geographic characteristics. Overall, men, minorities, the young, and those in urban areas are more likely to be crime victims.
In 2010, according to the UNODC, 67.5% of all homicides in the United States were perpetrated using a firearm.
Crime over time
In the long term, violent crime in the United States has been in decline since colonial times. However, during the early 20th century, crime rates in the United States were higher compared to parts of Western Europe. For example, 198 homicides were recorded in the American city of Chicago in 1916, a city of slightly over 2 million at the time. This level of crime was not exceptional when compared to other American cities such as New York, but was much higher relative to European cities, such as London, which then had three times the population but recorded only 45 homicides in the same year.
After World War II, crime rates increased in the United States, peaking from the 1970s to the early 1990s. Violent crime nearly quadrupled between 1960 and its peak in 1991. Property crime more than doubled over the same period. Since the 1990s, however, crime in the United States has declined steeply. Several theories have been proposed to explain this decline:
- The number of police officers increased considerably in the 1990s.
- The prison population has been expanded since the mid-1970s.
- Starting in the mid-1980s, the crack cocaine market grew rapidly before declining again a decade later. Some authors have pointed towards the link between violent crimes and crack use.
- One hypothesis suggests a causal link between legalized abortion and the drop in crime during the 1990s.
- Changing demographics of an aging population has been cited for the drop in overall crime.
- Another hypothesis suggests reduced lead exposure as the cause; Scholar Mark A.R. Kleiman writes: “Given the decrease in lead exposure among children since the 1980s and the estimated effects of lead on crime, reduced lead exposure could easily explain a very large proportion—certainly more than half—of the crime decrease of the 1994-2004 period. A careful statistical study relating local changes in lead exposure to local crime rates estimates the fraction of the crime decline due to lead reduction as greater than 90 percent.
- Three Strikes You’re Out Laws were suggested during the 1992 election cycle and implemented immediately following.
Characteristics of offenders
Characteristics of persons arrested vary from the average for specific types of crimes and specific crimes. Data for 2008 indicate that, of 16,277 murders, 10,568 were committed by males, 1,176 were by female, and 4,533 were committed in which the offenders sex was unknown. Likewise, 5,943 (36.5%) were committed by black/black Hispanic offenders, 5,334 (32.8%) murders were committed by white/white Hispanic offenders, 273 (1.7%) were committed by offenders of other races, and 4,727 (29%) murders were committed by offenders whose race is not known. If murders where the race of the offender is unknown are excluded from the calculation, the numbers are: 51.5% black, 46.2% white, and 2.4% “other.”
A 2008 FBI Uniform Crime Report on rape and sexual-based crime published by the United States Department of Justice stated that of the crimes surveyed, whites represented 65.2% of persons arrested for rape, blacks represented 32.2%, with American Indians and Asians ranking just above 1%. “Hispanics”, “Hispanic-White” or “Hispanic-Black” was not specified into any specific category.
According to the latest “Hate Crimes Reported by Victims and Police,” a 2008 Bureau of Justice Statistics Report, hate crime 20% of “hate crime” offenders were black (despite comprising only roughly 12.5% of the total population), 61% were white (despite comprising about 72.4% of the total population), while the victims were predominantly black (72.9%) and targeted because of their race (51%). Among religious hate crimes, the majority of victims were of Jewish faith (65.7%) with less than one in ten offenses aimed at people of the Muslim faith (7.7%). Among crimes aimed at ethnicity and national background, the majority of hate crimes were of anti-Hispanic bias (64%).
Reporting at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (August 3, 2008), sociologists at Bowling Green State University found that men who attend college are more likely to commit property crimes during their college years than their non-college-attending peers. The research draws from three waves of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and examines education, crime levels, substance abuse and socializing among adolescents and young adults. Also, according to Naci Mocan of the University of Colorado and Erdal Tekin of Georgia State University, “We find that unattractive individuals commit more crime in comparison to average-looking ones, and very attractive individuals commit less crime in comparison to those who are average-looking.”
In 2011, surveys indicated more than 5.8 million violent victimizations and 17.1 million property victimizations took place in the United States; according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, each property victimization corresponded to one household, while violent victimizations is the number of victims of a violent crime.
Patterns are found within the victimology of crime in the United States. Overall, the financially disadvantaged, those younger than 25 and non-Whites were more likely to fall victim to crime. Income, sex and age had the most dramatic effect on the chances of a person being victimized by crime, while the characteristic of race depended upon the crime being committed.
In terms of gender, males were more likely to become crime victims than were females, with 79% percent of all murder victims being male. Males were also twice as likely to be carjacked as were females.
In terms of income, households with a 2008 annual income of less than $15,000 were significantly more likely to have their homes burgled.
Concerning age, those younger than twenty-five were more likely to fall victim to crime, especially violent crime. The chances of being victimized by violent crime decreased far more substantially with age than the chances of becoming the victim of property crime. For example, 3.03% of crimes committed against a young person were theft, while 20% of crimes committed against an elderly person were theft. Thus, one can conclude that the probability of becoming a violent crime victim decreases as income and age increase, in addition to being lower for European Americans and females.
Crimes against the homeless
A 2007 study found that the number of violent crimes against the homeless is increasing. The rate of such documented crimes in 2005 was 30% higher than of those in 1999. 75% of all perpetrators are under the age of 25. Studies and surveys indicate that homeless people have a much higher criminal victimization rate than the non-homeless, but that most incidents never get reported to authorities.
In recent years, largely due to the efforts of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and academic researchers the problem of violence against the homeless has gained national attention. The NCH called deliberate attacks against the homeless hate crimes in their report Hate, Violence, and Death on Mainstreet USA (they retain the definition of the American Congress).
The Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino in conjunction with the NCH found that 155 homeless people were killed by non-homeless people in “hate killings”, while 76 people were killed in all the other traditional hate crime homicide categories such as race and religion, combined. The CSHE contends that negative and degrading portrayals of the homeless contribute to a climate where violence takes place.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As of 2006, a record 7 million people were behind bars, on probation or on parole, of which 2.2 million were incarcerated. The People’s Republic of China ranks second with 1.5 million. The United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated population.
In terms of federal prison, 57% of those incarcerated were sentenced for drug offenses. However, the federal prison population is a very small percentage of the massive state prison population, which also holds numerous people convicted of drug offenses. Currently, considering county jails as well, almost a million of those incarcerated are in prison for non-violent crime. In 2002, 93.2% of prisoners were male. 10.4% of the black males in the United States between the ages of 25 and 29 were sentenced and in prison by year end, as were 2.4% of Hispanic males and 1.2% of white males.
Many sociologists and criminal justice academics argue that this disparity in prison population is reflective of discriminatory sentencing. In a study conducted by the Rand Corporation, it has been estimated that Blacks and Latinos received longer sentences and spent more time in prison than their white counterparts who were convicted of similar crimes and with similar criminal records. One particular example revealed the state of California statistically imposed sentences that averaged 6.5 months longer for Hispanics, and 1.5 months longer for Blacks when compared to white inmates.
More than one in 100 adults in the United States is in jail or prison, an all-time high that costs state governments nearly $50 billion a year and the federal government $5 billion more. With more than 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States leads the world in both the number and percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving China a remote second, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States. For example, Florida, which has almost doubled its prison population over the past 15 years, has experienced a smaller drop in crime than New York, which, after a brief increase, has reduced its number of inmates to below the 1993 level.
The manner in which America’s crime rate compared to other countries of similar wealth and development depends on the nature of the crime used in the comparison. Overall crime statistic comparisons are difficult to conduct, as the definition of crimes significant enough to be published in annual reports varies across countries. Thus an agency in a foreign country may include crimes in its annual reports which the United States omits, and vice-versa.
Some countries such as Canada, however, have similar definitions of what constitutes a violent crime, and nearly all countries had the same definition of the characteristics that constitutes a homicide. Overall the total crime rate of the United States is similar to that of other highly developed countries. Some types of reported property crime in the U.S. survey as lower than in Germany or Canada, yet the homicide rate in the United States is substantially higher.
The US homicide rate, which has declined substantially since 1991 from a rate per 100,000 persons of 9.8 to 4.8 in 2010, is still among the highest in the industrialized world. There were 14,748 homicides in the United States in 2010, including non-negligent manslaughter. (666,160 murders from 1960 to 1996). In 2004, there were 5.5 homicides for every 100,000 persons, roughly three times as high as Canada (1.9) and six times as high as Germany (0.9). A closer look at The National Archive of Criminal Justice Data indicates that per-capita homicide rates over the last 30 years on average of major cities, New Orleans’ average annual per capita homicide rate of 52 murders per 100,000 people overall (1980–2009) ranks highest of U.S. cities with average annual homicide totals among the 10 highest during the same period.
In the United States, the number of homicides where the victim and offender relationship was undetermined has been increasing since 1999 but has not reached the levels experienced in the early 1990s. In 14% of all murders, the victim and the offender were strangers. Spouses and family members made up about 15% of all victims, about one-third of the victims were acquaintances of the assailant, and the victim and offender relationship was undetermined in over one-third of homicides. Gun involvement in homicides were gang-related homicides which increased after 1980, homicides that occurred during the commission of a felony which increased from 55% in 1985 to 77% in 2005, homicides resulting from arguments which declined to the lowest levels recorded recently, and homicides resulting from other circumstances which remained relatively constant. Because gang killing has become a normal part of inner cities, many including police hold preconceptions about the causes of death in inner cities. When a death is labeled gang-related it lowers the chances that it will be investigated and increases the chances that the perpetrator will remain at large. In addition, victims of gang killings often determine the priority a case will be given by police. Jenkins (1988) argues that many serial murder cases remain unknown to police and that cases involving Black offenders and victims are especially likely to escape official attention.
The reported US violent crime rate includes only Aggravated Assault, whereas the Canadian violent crime rate includes all categories of assault, including the much-more-numerous Assault level 1 (i.e., assault not using a weapon and not resulting in serious bodily harm). A Canadian government study concluded that direct comparison of the 2 countries’ violent crime totals or rates was “inappropriate”.
According to a 2004 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, looking at the period from 1981 to 1999, the United States had a lower surveyed residential burglary rate in 1998 than Scotland, England,Canada, the Netherlands, and Australia. The other two countries included in the study, Sweden and Switzerland, had only slightly lower burglary rates. (Note: The rate of burglary in police records remained higher in the U.S. than most other countries during the study period (see graph)). For the first nine years of the study period the same surveys of the public showed only Australia with rates higher than the U.S. The authors noted various problems in doing the comparisons including infrequent data points (The U.S. performed 5 surveys from 1995 to 1999 when its rate dipped below Canada’s while Canada ran a single telephone survey during that period for comparison).
Physical abuse and neglect of children
According to a 2001 report from UNICEF, the United States has the highest rate of deaths from child abuse and neglect of any industrialized nation, at 2.4 per 100,000 children; France has 1.4, Japan 1, UK 0.9 and Germany 0.8. According to the US Department of Health, the state of Texas has the highest death rate, at 4.05 per 100,000 children, New York has 2.46, Oregon 1.49 and New Hampshire 0.35.  it is widely accepted that children who come from abusive and neglectful households are 60% more likely to commit crimes of rape and/or murder, and there is a 75% chance that they themselves will be abusive and neglectful to their own children.
Geography of crime
Crime in metropolitan statistical areas tends to be above the national average; however, wide variance exists among and within metropolitan areas. Some responding jurisdictions report very low crime rates, while others have considerably higher rates.
The homicide rate exemplifies the stark differences between communities. For example, in 2004 the New Orleans police departments reported more homicides per 100,000 residents than any other jurisdiction. The rate of homicide per 100,000 was 56.0, which was ten times the national average. By contrast, in 2005 Forbes magazine listed Long Island, one of the suburban areas of New York City, which is also one of the wealthiest and most expensive communities in the United States, as having 2.042 crimes per 100,000 residents; the lowest crime rate and less than half the US average.
Fairfax County, Virginia, a very affluent suburban enclave of the nation’s capital with 1,041,200 residents, had the lowest homicide rate of any jurisdiction. In 2004, Fairfax County’s homicide rate was reported at 0.3 homicides per 100,000 persons, 94.5% below the national average and 1/145 of Philadelphia’s homicide rate. It is therefore important to remember that the risk of being victimized by crime in the United States varies greatly from locale to locale.
It is quite common for crime in American cities to be highly concentrated in a few, often economically disadvantaged areas. For example, San Mateo County, California had a population of approximately 707,000 and 17 homicides in 2001. Six of these 17 homicides took place in poor East Palo Alto, which had a population of roughly 30,000. So, while East Palo Alto accounted for a mere 4.2% of the population, about one-third of the homicides took place there.
Crime rates vary greatly across the states. Overall, New England had the lowest crime rates, for both violent and property crimes. New England states also had the lowest homicide rates in the country.
A closer look at per capita homicide rates for each state from FBI Uniform Crime Reports Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that Louisiana’s per capita homicide rate has ranked first every single year from 1989 to 2010, which is 22 consecutive years.
Southern states had the highest overall crime rates. Crime can also be isolated to one particular part of a state. Lafayette, Louisiana, for instance had 6 murders per 100,000 people in 2004, while New Orleans, Louisiana, had 56 murders per 100,000 people according to Bureau of Justice Statistics for the same year.
Almost all of the nation’s wealthiest twenty states, which included northern mid-western and western states such as Minnesota and California, had crime rates below the national average. In addition to having the country’s lowest crime rates, New England states also had the country’s highest median household income, while the Southern states have the lowest.
This contrasts starkly to some of the nation’s poorer states such as Florida or Louisiana. Louisiana had a crime rate 27% and a homicide rate 130.9% above the national average and ranked as the nation’s fourth poorest state with a median household income 20% below the national median. While poorer states generally have higher crime rates, several states who fell below the national median for household income such as Maine and Kentucky also had crime rates below the national average, while some wealthier states such as Maryland had crime rates above the national average.