Did Criminal Activity Increase During the 1980s? Comparisons Across Data Sources

Scott Boggess, John Bound

NBER Working Paper No. 4431
Issued in August 1993
NBER Program(s):Labor Studies

There is a widely held belief that the level of serious criminal activity increased during the 1980s. particularly among the urban underclass, This increase has been mentioned as both a cause and consequence of the increasingly poor labor market prospects of less skilled workers. Significant increases in both Federal and State incarceration rates would seem to support this view. However. data from the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) suggests only a mild increase in crime over this period, while the National Crime Survey (NCS) actually depicts lower levels of criminal activity. This paper carefully analyzes data from all three sources in an attempt to understand the nature of the series and to come to an informed opinion regarding the apparent differences in their trends. What we discover is that the large increase in the incarceration rate is attributable primarily to an increase in the likelihood of incarceration given arrest. During the latter part of the 1980s a dramatic increase in the number of arrests and incarcerations for drug law violations also played an important role. The increase in drug related activity was not registered by either the UCR or NCS because neither series measures the incidence of victimless crime.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w4431

Published: SSQ, Vol. 78, no. 3 (September 1997): 725-739.

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