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The threat and fear of crime are constant concerns that impact many people in modern society. The safety of schools and communities are usually indicated by crime rates, and are justifiably major factors in choosing where to reside. Research denotes that juveniles are involved in numerous crimes each year, as perpetrators who are subjected to legal intervention for status offenses such as running away, school truancy and curfew violations and as victims (Regoli, Hewitt, & Delisi, 2007). Literature review reveals that there are official measures of juvenile crime which include those by police, the courts, and corrections agencies; and unofficial measures of juvenile crime such as self-report and victim surveys, that try to give a more complete description of the true extent of juvenile crime (Schmalleger, & Bartollas, 2008). This paper will discuss several methodologies of official and unofficial measurements of juvenile delinquency and the identifiable problems with these types of data collections.
Keywords: Uniform Crime Report, National Incident-Based Reporting System, self-reporting
Criminologists for years have recognized that there are major problems in defining and measuring juvenile delinquency. The first is the legal definition that applies to youth who have been officially labeled in juvenile court. Legal definitions vary by time and place, making comparisons difficult because they are not uniform in all jurisdictions with respect to age of the prosecution; thus they tend to provide an unrealistic picture of the extent and nature of delinquency since they deal only with youth who are caught and processed (Regoli et al., 2007). Behavioral definitions in contrast to the legal definition can sometimes provide a more accurate picture of the extent and nature of delinquency and the characteristics of the offenders and victims. By using behavioral definitions, juveniles who violate statutes are seen as delinquent whether or not they are officially labeled (Regoli et al., 2007). The results have the appearance of delinquency being evenly distributed across social class and more frequent than official statistics would lead us to believe; thus showing a highly noted problem of relying on self-reporting processes and the difficulties in collecting accurate data (Regoli et al., 2007; Schmalleger, 2009).
Measurement is not new to the juvenile justice system. Too often data collected by juvenile justice agencies have been unrelated to outcomes, and seldom allowed the public to assess performance in a meaningful way (Schmalleger, & Bartollas, 2008). I suggest that this one of the reasons information does not completely help juvenile justice systems and organizations determine impact or cost-effectiveness of their interventions. Data is most useful when it provides input to juvenile justice professionals regarding public awareness and support, and can provide citizens and other government stakeholders with a sense of what the juvenile justice systems and agencies are really accomplishing or trying to accomplish.
Official Measuring of Juvenile Delinquency
Even with all the debates about the methodology of juvenile delinquency measurement, official crime statistics are considered the most accurate measures of crime and are often used in the news media and by justice agencies. This data is usually compiled by police, courts, and corrections agencies. The Uniform Crime Report (UCR) a program which began in 1929 and provides this type of data on the national and local levels, and track occurrences of eight specific crimes including the locations and frequencies of each (Lynch, & Jarvis, 2008). This useful information is collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from law enforcement agencies across the country, and presents descriptive statistical, historical profile of violent juvenile crime in America based on the percentage of all arrests (Lynch, & Jarvis, 2008).
Another official measure for data collection of juvenile crime is the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). This system was developed in 1988 by the federal government to address some of the shortcomings of the UCR, and is generated from the records management systems of federal, state and local agencies (Regoli, et al., 2007). The NIBRS which collects information on every arrest and incident was intended to be a broader crime reporting system in comparison to the UCR program; and it gives much greater details on specific crimes because it differentiates between crimes that are attempted and crimes that are completed (Schmalleger, 2009).
Proponents for official measurements have recently argued that these measures show validity for certain crimes; any problems tend to be stable over time allowing trends and patterns to surface; there is easy to access to the data and relatively inexpensive; they allow for city and regional trend comparisons; and they provides detailed information on reporting patterns, who is arrested, and homicides (Lynch, & Jarvis, 2008). In contrast, opponents have raised the issues that the reports do not capture unreported crime because under or over reporting by law enforcement often referred to as the dark figure of crime; and as it relates to juvenile crimes the number of arrests is not equal to the actual number of youths who committed crime, and group arrests overestimate juvenile crime (Lynch, & Jarvis, 2008).
Un-Official Measuring of Juvenile Delinquency
Even though most of the fundamental problems with official crime statistics had been identified before the end of the nineteenth century, including the major problem of the dark figure of unknown crime, it was not until the mid-twentieth century that systematic attempts to unravel some of the mysteries of official statistics were initiated (Regoli, et al., 2007). Turning to data sources outside of the official agencies of criminal justice, unofficial crime statistics were generated in order to explore the dark figure of crime not known to the police, and to create measures of crime that were independent of the official registrars of crime and crime control, which many felt would address more validity and reliability issues in the measurement of crime (Doerner, & Lab, 2005).
One un-official data collecting measure used for juvenile delinquency is self-reporting. These reports are confidential questionnaires administered to samples of youth who voluntarily report on their own involvement in delinquent activities, which sometimes provide a more complete picture of juvenile delinquency (Webb, Katz, & Decker, 2006). They however are not error free. These measures use population samples that arguably are small, and it has been suggested by some criminologists that they are not representative of juvenile offenders as a whole (Webb et al., 2006).
Recently, it has been proposed by some researchers that victim surveys recognize the inadequacies of official measures of crime, particularly the apparently substantial volume of crime and victimization that remains unknown to, and therefore un-acted upon by, criminal justice authorities (Doerner, & Lab, 2005). The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), a survey sponsored by the federal government and has been collecting data on personal and household victimization since 1973 (Doerner, & Lab, 2005). It was designed with four primary objectives: to develop detailed information about the victims and consequences of crime; to estimate the number and types of crimes not reported to the police; to provide uniform measures of selected types of crimes; and to permit comparisons over time and types of areas (Doerner, & Lab, 2005).
In general, victimization surveys have the same problems and threats to validity and reliability as any other social-science survey. Ironically, there is a double dark figure of hidden crime that is not reported to interviewers in victimization surveys designed to uncover crimes not reported to the police (Doerner, & Lab, 2005). Such incomplete reporting of victimization means that victimization surveys, like official data sources, also underestimate the true amount of crime, and this then suggests that the discrepancy between the crime rate estimates of the victim surveys and the UCR may be even larger than reports indicate. A noted strength of victim surveys is that most crimes included in the questionnaire are F.B.I. index crimes; but research also reveals that two index crimes (murder and arson) are not included in the survey, though many other important crimes are measured in the victimization surveys (Doerner, & Lab, 2005). It is fair to argue that many times the results from this type of data collection show that the victimization statistics are somewhat limited in their representativeness and generalizing ability.
Debates have been heated over the last few decades on the proper way to measure delinquency. Research reveals that there are three major sources of data that have been used, self-reports of delinquent behavior, victimization surveys, and official accounts (e.g., arrests, court records) (Regoli et al., 2007). These sources of data results do not always agree, and studies have shown that certain methodologies such as survey-reports show weaker associations between social status (e.g., poverty, race, gender) and delinquency than official records (Regoli et al., 2007). Proponents for methodological measurements argue that these sources of data yield reasonably similar patterns when the object of inquiry is serious and persistent delinquency (Schmalleger, 2009). I suggest there is still a need for more methodologies to aid in the challenges of prevention and recidivism juvenile crime.