How Many U.S. Rapes–83,000 or 1.3 Million? BJS Rexamines Survey Methods


Recent media reports of horrific rapes in India depict a country where every woman is in danger of being assaulted at any time. Official crime statistics tell a very different story, says Wall Street Journal columnist Carl Bialik. Last year, the Indian government says there were 24,923 cases of rape. That’s about two per 100,000 Indians. The per capita rate in the U.S. is more than 13 times higher. Official figures include only crimes reported to police. What criminologists call the “dark figure” of unreported crime isn’t captured, and those missing incidents can greatly outnumber reported ones, especially for rape.

The rate of underreporting can vary sharply by country. A nation that makes headway in encouraging more victims to come forward will appear to have a worsening problem. A 2010 survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1.3 million women were raped in a year. The number dwarfed the 83,425 rapes reported to police in 2011. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics is examining whether its approach to sensitive topics such as rape is the right one. It plans two tests next year of alternative ways of fielding the survey, by telephone or having people enter answers directly on a computer. Separately, a panel of statisticians and criminologists BJS convened to advise on tweaking its approach is expected to report its recommendations in October. Former BJS director James Lynch said he commissioned the panel because he was tired of the criminal-justice and public-health communities “spitting at each other.”

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