Measuring Crime


James Lynch, the new chief of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, tells The Crime Report he hopes to make significant changes in compiling the yearly federal estimate of crimes across the nation

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has its first leader in memory who is a well-known expert on the agency's work. Criminologist James P. Lynch, formerly a distinguished professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and before that a faculty member and department chair at American University in Washington, D.C., was confirmed by the Senate in late June.

Lynch had taken part in a review of BJS completed last year by a National Academy of Sciences expert panel, which concluded that the agency's renowned National Crime Victimization Survey “falls short of the vibrant measure of annual change in crime that was envisioned at the survey's outset” back in the 1970s.

One of the main challenges in his new job is to address the survey, which is considered by many to be the most definitive measure of crime in the United States. Unlike the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, which essentially is a compilation of reports from citizens to thousands of police departments, BJS's survey is based on a scientific system of interviews that aims to include the millions of crimes that are not reported to law enforcement each year.

Both reports say crime is down in recent years, but consider the difference in the totals: for last year, the FBI says there were about 1.3 million violent crimes reported; the victimization survey puts the number at 4.3 million.

A significant limitation in BJS's victimization survey is that its design has not allowed for estimates of crime data broken down by state and locality.

Lynch said in an interview with The Crime Report that BJS is working on a plan that finally should be able to produce such data, so that, for example, Los Angeles would be able to compare its robbery rate to Boston's.

Budget Uncertain

It is not yet clear when that data will be available publicly. One factor is the BJS budget. Like the rest of federal spending, the final allocation for BJS in the fiscal year ending next October 1 is uncertain in these times of fiscal stress. The crime victimization survey has accounted for about half of BJS's budget — currently around $60 million annually — which itself is minuscule by Washington standards. The Justice Department as a while has an annual budget nearing $28 billion.

Some analysts already try to use the FBI's annual crime data to compare cities. This is a difficult proposition for many reasons. Some jurisdictions don't report their numbers to the FBI at all, while others don't strictly use the FBI's standard crime definitions. (A problem that cannot be cured easily by redesigning the BJS survey is that cities' political boundary lines don't make them very comparable: some are dominated by dense, impoverished neighborhoods, and others include sprawling suburban tracts.)

Budgetary limitations may mean that crime victimization rates for every major jurisdiction can't be calculated annually and that cities or regions may be assessed only on a rotating basis. For more information on the technical aspects of the “local area estimation” project, see the report on the BJS website,

Lynch hopes that the victimization survey can also be used as what he calls a “social intelligence device that can help guide criminal justice policy.” He envisions that beyond asking a scientific sample of Americans whether they were victimized by crime, people could be asked about other current issues, such as whether they have had experiences of being arrested or questioned after being seen on a security camera.

Survey questions would largely cover the public's interactions with the justice system and would not be aimed at measuring public opinion, such as what people think of the death penalty or police tactics, Lynch says. Even if a budget for additional questions becomes available, the questions probably would not be incorporated into the survey until 2014.

Will Congress increase funding for the justice statistics bureau even in an era when crime rates are lower than they were a decade ago? Lynch hopes so.

“Crime is an important social issue that needs to be monitored,” he says. “We don't cut surveys of unemployment when the economy is good.”

Lynch notes that BJS is the only federal agency that consistently tracks data on many crime and justice issues, despite the popular impression that the FBI report is comprehensive. On several key issues, such as drugs, stalking and fraud, the FBI compilation includes only figures on arrests, which may or may not indicate the actual level of crime.

Tracking Police Records

One potentially tricky area that Lynch wants to pursue is a better use of records that police departments and other agencies already compile but that are not integrated rapidly into a national database that could be useful in making criminal-justice policies.

A key example is recidivism, that is, the frequency of re-offending by former convicts. Data on recidivism are notoriously difficult to compile because each state keeps track of the subject differently and many released prisoners end up committing crimes in different states, making it hard to keep a comprehensive national count.

As a result, BJS has issued national data only infrequently. In 2002, the agency issued what still is a widely quoted study based on 1994 data, concluding that about two-thirds of inmates are re-arrested within three years of their release.

BJS has been working on improving data collection from states so that a fresh recidivism report can be issued much more frequently, perhaps annually. The agency hopes this project can be completed in the next year or so but will not be pinned down to an exact release date now.

The availability of other government records could help with other criminal justice questions. For example, it is well known that people with criminal records have a harder time finding employment than do those with a clean slate, but most reports on the subject are anecdotal or are limited to the experiences of one social service agency that decides to survey its participants.

Lynch points out that the Internal Revenue Service has employment records of everyone who files a tax return. These could be matched, for example, with a list of released inmates to see how many reported employment in a particular period. Privacy protections would require that no names are used in a publicly released study, but such matching would provide a much better estimate of the extent of the problem than has ever been available, Lynch says.

At a conference this fall of the Justice Research and Statistics Association (JRSA), which represents states on statistical issues, Lynch vowed better cooperation between his agency and its state counterparts. He said that in a time of government “retrenchment ” for budget reasons, BJS could help states make comparisons on how they are handling similar issues, like prison population projections.

BJS and JRSA usually co-sponsor a joint meeting every fall to discuss common issues. That session will not be held in 2011. It will be replaced by a special expanded gathering in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 2012 for representatives of all state agencies that deal with crime statistics, says Joan Weiss, the JRSA's director.

Daunting Challenge

As a member of the National Academy of Sciences panel that took several years to examine BJS' work in detail and issued two volumes of recommendations, Lynch knows that the challenges of improving the nation's collection of crime data will be daunting. He has spent much of his first five months on the job attending to issues that needed to be dealt with after the agency got little high-level attention during the George W. Bush administration.

He and other senior Justice Department officials are hoping that the Barack Obama administration's aim of basing government programs on scientific principles will prove to be a boon to small agencies like his because they specialize in data collection and analysis.

Speaking last month at the American Society of Criminology annual conference in San Francisco, Lynch mentioned the new BJS emphasis on recidivism data and said the results “may change the way we think about criminal careers.”

It will be up to the Obama White House and a Congress with an influx of budget cutters from both parties to determine the level of resources for BJS and a host of other federal statistical agencies.

For those not familiar with BJS, visit its new website for a comprehensive catalogue of the agency's work, including recent studies on issues ranging from the federal justice system, background checks for firearms transactions, and gang units in large local law enforcement agencies.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists

Photo by Adam Gerard via Flickr.

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