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Another Plea To Fix Gaps In U.S. Crime Statistics

Criminologist Janet Lauritsen. Photo by August Jennewein

After many years of work by many levels of federal and state government to correct flaws in the compilation of key crime and justice data in the U.S., comprehensive and up-to-data statistics still are lacking in many important ways.

The departing president of the American Society of Criminology (ASC), Janet Lauritsen of the University of Missouri St. Louis, delivered the latest call for reform in her presidential address on Friday. The ASC concluded its annual convention on Saturday in Atlanta.

More efforts are needed to correct the "critical... complex... and fundamental" problems in the system, Lauritsen told fellow criminologists.

Lauritsen headed a National Academy of Sciences committee that issued reports in 2016 and 2018 calling attention to the problem.

The later report said that in both 2006 and 2015, "the nation as a whole was hindered by the typical 10-month gap between the end of the calendar year and the release of current national crime statistics, unable to understand whether local patterns were part of broader regional or national patterns or whether increased homicide activities were limited to specific forms of homicide such as drug-related murder."

That report predated another homicide rise during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, an increase that experts still are trying to understand.

Since then, the crime statistics situation has worsened as the FBI struggles to implement a system called the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which is designed to expand the agency's historic Uniform Crime Reporting program, which has not been overhauled since its inception in 1929.

As her committee's earlier reports noted, Lauritsen said on Friday that the FBI's traditional crime-counting system focuses on street crimes like robbery, assault and burglary and do not attempt to count important categories of criminal activity such as cybercrime, war crimes, and "public order and authority."

In general, Lauritsen supports a study of "types of crime that are not well measured," and she called on criminologists to include this subject more often in the work they take on.

In April 2021, Lauritsen was among a group of prominent criminologists that called on the Biden administration to launch a campaign for "criminal justice data modernization."

The experts, in a document supported by Arnold Ventures, declared that, "An ambitious criminal justice reform agenda will require a strong commitment to building a modern, nimble, comprehensive data infrastructure."

The report said "reliable and systematic national data is lacking to describe" many "key issues, and to disaggregate results by race and ethnicity, gender identity, or disability status, and other characteristics such as neighborhood, age, or income."

It took the administration until this past summer to name a director of the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), University of Miami criminologist Alex Piquero.

In a separate appearance at the ASC conference, Piquero pledged to issue "timely, relevant, credible and accurate" data on crime. Piquero said he would work to modernize the agency, which suffered staff attrition during the Trump administration.

Piquero noted that BJS is working with the FBI to help install the NIBRS system nationwide. It will provide many more data points about each crime incident than the FBI's historic system, which largely provided a simple count of each reported crime incident.

Currently, police departments covering only about two-thirds of the U.S. population are reporting full data to the FBI.


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