Crime, Demography of

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Crime is an act that violates criminal law and is punishable by the state. Such an act is considered juvenile delinquency if the person who commits it is not legally an adult in the jurisdiction where he or she engaged in the offense. Juvenile delinquency also includes status offenses such as underage drinking or truancy, which are only offenses because the perpetrator is under a legal adult age. Because of lack of uniformity in definitions and differences in accuracy and completeness of reporting, international comparisons of crime rates are exceedingly difficult and error-prone. This entry focuses on demographic aspects of crime in the United States.

Crime Data and Trends

There are three major sources of data on crime and delinquency in the United States. First is the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Uniform Crime Reports (UCR). These data provide summary counts of crimes reported to police agencies. The UCR presents detailed data on seven categories of crime, called the index offenses (or Part I crimes). These include four violent offenses–murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault–and three crimes against property–burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft. Reported crime counts are also provided in the UCR for a set of twenty-one additional (Part II) crimes. The second major source of crime data is the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which collects information on crime victimization from household interviews. Because many crimes are not reported to the police, NCVS data show much higher rates of victimization than the UCR. However, both UCR and NCVS data tend to exhibit quite similar long-term crime trends. The third data source, collected through self-report surveys of youth (e.g., the National Youth Survey) or the general population, reflects crime and delinquency offending.


The most extensive time series of crime rates in the United States are available for the UCR index offenses. Annual rates for the years 1960 to 2000 of total, property, and violent index crimes per 100,000 population are presented in Figure 1. The United States experienced dramatic increases in rates of reported index crimes in the three decades following 1960, but these rates then dropped every year from 1991 to 2000. The rate of violent crime more than quadrupled between 1960 and 1991–from 161 to 758 per 100,000 population annually. By 2000 the violent crime rate had fallen to about 500 per 100,000, a rate not seen since the late 1970s. Within the category of violent crime, the number of murders (including non-negligent manslaughter) in the United States was 23,000 in 1980 and 15,500 in 2000; the corresponding rates per 100,000 population were 10.2 in 1980 and 5.5 in 2000. The rate of reported property crime has been somewhat more volatile over time, but still tripled between 1960 and 1991; its subsequent steady decline resulted in a 2000 rate similar to that experienced in the early 1970s. Figure 1 also clearly shows that property crimes comprise the vast majority of all index offenses. In 2000, for example, the four violent index crimes constituted just 12.3 percent of all index offenses.

Demographic Predictors of Crime

Demographic factors such as age, sex, and race play an important role in understanding variation in crime rates across time and place. Demographic features of the population effect crime rates in two distinct ways. First, characteristics of population structure have compositional effects: crime rates are higher when demographic groups that have greater levels of involvement in crime constitute a larger share of the population. Second, aspects of population structure may have contextual effects on crime when they exert causal influences on criminal motivations and opportunities for crime independent of individual level for criminal tendencies.

The incidence of crime by age group exhibits a consistent pattern: it increases sharply between early and late adolescence (around age 17), and then declines. The late-adolescent peak in offending rates–the "age-crime curve"–is one of the few established empirical regularities in the demography of crime, although debate over the nature of this relationship continues. Scholars such as Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi argue that the age-crime curve is essentially invariant across subpopulations based on sex, race, income, and other characteristics, and cannot be explained by social processes that vary across age. Others argue that the relationship between age and crime varies by offense type and historical period. Contextual hypotheses regarding the effects of age structure have emphasized the negative impact of disproportionately youthful populations on the capacity for social control by societies and other collectivities.

The relationship between sex and crime is also well-established, with men exhibiting consistently higher rates of criminal activity, particularly for serious crimes such as the violent index offenses. The explanation for sex differences in criminal activity is also the subject of continued debate. The widespread view presented by John Hagan, John Gillis, and A.R. Simpson links gender inequality with variation in criminal activity. In this view, sex differences in crime rates should narrow as women achieve greater social equality with men. In contrast, other scholars such as Darrell J. Steffensmeier and Emilie Anderson Allan suggest that criminal activity by women is likely to be higher in contexts where gender inequality–and the corresponding level of crime-inducing disadvantage among women–is most pronounced. Contextual hypotheses regarding the effect of the population sex ratio (the ratio of the number of men to women) have drawn attention to the potential role of high sex ratios on the social valuation of women. Contexts in which there are relatively few women may result in greater protection of women from victimization.

Official statistics on reported crimes and arrests show that African Americans are over-represented as both offenders and victims in most types of serious crimes in the United States. The causes of the large black–white difference in criminal involvement are controversial. Some researchers have contended that distinct cultural orientations toward violence produce the racial differences in the crime rates. However, most recent research attributes the largest part of the race gap in violent crime to differences in the structural circumstances of African Americans and whites. African Americans have higher levels of disadvantages such as poverty than whites, and these disadvantages are associated with greater violent criminal offending and victimization. In addition, African Americans tend to live in more highly disadvantaged communities that produce social conditions that are more conducive to crime. When African Americans and whites live in comparable community settings, rates of violence are quite similar.

See also: Homicide and Suicide.


Easterlin, Richard A. 1987. Birth and Fortune: The Impact of Numbers on Personal Welfare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gottfredson, Michael, and Travis Hirschi. 1990. A General Theory of Crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Hagan, John, John Simpson, and A. R. Gillis. 1987. "Class in the Household: A Power-Control Theory of Gender and Delinquency." American Journal of Sociology 92: 788–816.

Krivo, Lauren J., and Ruth D. Peterson. 1996. "Extremely Disadvantaged Neighborhoods and Urban Crime." Social Forces 75: 619–650.

——. 2000. "The Structural Context of Homicide: Accounting for Racial Differences in Process." American Sociological Review 65: 547–559.

Sampson, Robert J., and William Julius Wilson. 1995. "Toward a Theory of Race, Crime, and Urban Inequality." In Crime and Inequality, ed. John Hagan and Ruth D. Peterson. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

South, Scott J., and Steven F. Messner. 1987. "The Sex Ratio and Women's Involvement in Crime: A Cross-National Analysis." Sociological Quarterly 28: 171–188.

Steffensmeier, Darrell J., and Emilie Andersen Allan. 1996. "Gender and Crime: Toward a Gendered Theory of Female Offending." Annual Review of Sociology 22: 45–87.

Steffensmeier, Darrell J., Emilie Andersen Allan, Miles David Harer, and Cathy Streifel. 1989. "Age and the Distribution of Crime." American Journal of Sociology 94: 803–831.

U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States, 2000.

internet resource.

Maguire, Kathleen, and Ann L. Pastore, eds. 2001. Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, Table3.120. <>.

Lauren J. Krivo

Christopher R. Browning