A fundamental indicator of a deteriorating society is increased criminal behavior. Crime analysis in the United States has focused on two primary measures over the last few decades. One measure is based on crimes reported to law enforcement officers. These are compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and presented in the Uniform Crime Report (UCR). The UCR data has the advantage of measuring officially recorded events but it is not an ideal indicator of actual crime incidents. Different types of crimes are reported at varying frequencies. For instance, nearly all murders are reported but less than half of some property crimes are reported. Furthermore, depending on an array of political concerns, law enforcement agencies occasionally focus more resources on some crimes to the detriment of enforcement against other types of crime. This leads to higher reporting and a higher crime rate. Also, public education and changing values can cause a change in the frequency of reported crime. Nevertheless, the UCR statistics are considered an important measure.
A better measure of actual crime is the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) conducted by the US Department of Justice. The data is based on surveys of a scientifically selected sample of the population. Unfortunately, the survey only dates to 1973. What does UCR and NCVS data reveal?
The UCR data shows:
- A steadily increasing crime rate until about 1980.
- A decline in the crime during the early1980s.
- Violent crime rates reached a fifty year high in 1991.
- Property crime had a less dramatic increase but also hit a peak in 1991.
- Both violent and property crime rates dropped dramatically in the years after 1991.
- The 2003 levels for both types of crime are similar to rates in the early 1970s.
NCVS data tell a different tale.
The NCVS data shows:
- A peak in the property crime rate in the mid-1970s.
- A steady decline in property crime until the mid-1980s when the rate stabilized.
- Another decline in property crime during the early 1990s.
- The property crime rate plateaued in 2003, at a rate less than one-third of the rate in 1973.
- Violent crime peaked in 1981 and then declined before stabilizing in the Mid-1980s.
- Violent began rising again in 1990 and nearly reached the 1981 peak in 1994.
- Violent crime has declined since 1994 to a rate less than one-half the peak rate in 1981.
The NCVS data seems to tell a different story from the UCR Data. How are these two measures to be reconciled?
Rarely are changes in complex phenomena like national crime rates the consequence of a single factor. That is true here. Much of what has unfolded over the last twenty years occurs against the backdrop of drug use and law enforcement efforts concerning drug use.
The peak year for the use of illicit drugs was 1981. Both the UCR and NCVS data show that this was also a peak time for criminal behavior. Crime rates dropped for a few years after the 1981 peak. Both measures show an increase in violent crime rates beginning about 1985, the year that a crack cocaine epidemic emerged. In response to the epidemic, the Regan Administration established the Office of National Drug Control Policy in 1988, headed by a “Drug Czar,” to coordinate efforts at reducing drug abuse. Law enforcement resources were targeted toward reducing drug abuse and related crime.
There were incidents of crime during this time as evidenced by the victimization rate. However, there were a higher percentage of crimes being adjudicated because of the increased focus of resources by law enforcement and the courts. A higher percentage of reported crime, during a time of increasing actual instances of crime, resulted in a spike in the UCR data.
The increased enforcement efforts also resulted in overcrowded prisons. Initially, some perpetrators served less prison time than they otherwise would have. The building boom for new prisons in the 1990s rectified this problem and has likely contributed to the declining crime rates. There was also a boom in private sector security technology and personnel over the past decade. This also likely contributed to the decline. 
Clearly there was an increase in violent crime in late 1980s and early 1990s, but not nearly as dramatic as the UCR statistics would suggest. Property crime actually declined during this time. While the UCR data shows a return to early 1970s UCR rates, the NCVS data shows a drop to levels that are less than half its early 1970s rate. This may mean that more crimes are actually being reported and adjudicated than was the case 30 years ago.
Other nuances to the 1994 peak of violent crime are worthy of note. The age-adjusted homicide rate was 10.7 in 1980 and again in 1993. Notice the difference in the age configuration of the murder victims for these two years:
The homicide victimization rate declined significantly for age groups over 24 years old. The rate dramatically increased for those under 25 and actually doubled for teenagers. But this is not the whole story. Note the following differences between White and Black males:
The death rate for Black males ages 20-24 in 1993 reached a staggering 190 per 100,000 people. (Age-adjusted rate for the nation was 10.2.) This was overwhelmingly Black on Black crime. One third of juvenile homicide arrests happened in the four cities of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit, even though these cities had just 5.8% of juveniles nationwide.  About 1 in four juvenile homicide cases occurred in just five of the nations more than 3,000 counties. The 1980 homicide rate appears to have been more disbursed both geographically and demographically. The early 1990s surge was concentrated among urban male teenagers and young men, especially those who were Black. It was directly related to the crack cocaine epidemic.  While the homicide rate for young black males has been significantly decreasing in recent years it has not decreased at the rate of other demographic groups. That such an episode occurred points to a number of disturbing social problems, but it does not support the idea of a broad based cultural slide into violence.
[Continued Social Indicators: Crime (Part 2 of 2)]
 Bruce L. Benson, “Why Crime Declines,” The Freeman, Foundation for Economic Education, January 2000. www.fee.org.
 Erik Lotke and Vincent Shiraldi, “An Analysis of Juvenile Homicides: Where They Occur and the Effectiveness of Adult Court Intervention,” National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, July 16, 1996. 188.8.131.52/stories/analysjuv0796.html
 Howard N. Snyder and Melissa Sickmund, “Juvenile Victims and Offenders: 1999 National Report,” National Center for Juvenile Justice, Washington, DC, September, 1999. Chapter 2, p. 21. www.ncjrs.org/html/ojjdp/nationalreport99/toc.html
 Ibid. Chapter 3.