Methods of Uncovering the Dark Figure of Crime

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The dark figure of crime describes undiscovered crimes committed in society, which have failed to be included within official statistics. The main methods utilized to uncover the ‘dark figure of crime’ include self-reporting surveys, victimization surveys, geospatial analysis and the Enforcement Pyramid (Coleman and Moynihan 1996). There are examples of the effectiveness of these methodologies. However, these methodologies have several practical issues. This essay will discuss the effectiveness of the ways in which hidden crimes can be discovered.

Self-Reporting Surveys

Since the 1940s, self reported studies have been a method utilized to uncover the ‘dark figure’ of crime. These studies involve asking individuals  about their involvement in criminal and other forms of law breaking activity through a self completed questionnaire or interview (Coleman and Moynihan 1996). The survey works by attempting to create a safe and free environment in order to gain an accurate result (Coleman and Moynihan 1996).  


Throughout history, there have been examples of the effectiveness of self surveys to uncover the dark figure of crime. Murphy’s 5 year study of American adolescent males illustrates this. From the 6416 infringements reported in the study, half of the infractions ended up in official criminal statistics (Murphy 1946). Portfield’s study of youth and students also developed a similar result. The survey uncovered hidden crimes of a pastor (Portfield 1946). In addition, the survey exposed an unreported murder. Furthermore, improvements to self-reporting have increased its dependability (Portfield 1946). In the late 1980s, James Short and F. Ivan Nye created a number of reliability checks. This increased the ability of self-reported surveys to uncover the ‘dark figure of crime.’ Their improvements included the introduction of social desirability variables (Short and Nye 1988). This resulted in increased statistical accuracy by discarding responses pertaining to those respondents who stated that they never committed marginal criminal behavior. Further, it disqualified exaggerations of crimes and inconsistence responses (Short and Nye 1988). This demonstrates that the dark figure of crime can be uncovered in surveys.


While self-reporting surveys have been useful tool in uncovering hidden crimes, there are methodological issues. The problem with self-reporting surveys is that they focus on trivial crimes. According to Box, trivial crimes are unlikely to produce a formal response from the criminal justice system particularly with adolescents (Coleman and Moynihan 1996). Therefore this produces a skewed result in which official figures are considered inaccurate. It is also important to note that some valid items have a tendency to produce high rates of trivial acts (Coleman and Moynihan 1996). A prime example occurred in the National Youth Survey. It was a longitudinal survey based on households of youths aged 11-17. The survey was notorious for the vast majority of initial responses being trivial, indicating the need to be careful about the wording of items and to have follow-up questions about the exact nature of incidents (Coleman and Moynihan 1996).

Non-response in self-reporting surveys is problematic as it can result in the under-representation of key groups. The main problem is individual’s willingness to engage with the survey (Coleman and Moynihan 1996). Hinderlang discovered that contact with the sample groups was easier with non-criminals, with a 1.3% non-location rate, as apposed to criminals, which consistently had a non-location rate of approximately 48.5% (Hinderland 1976). However, police classified delinquents were the most likely group to agree to participate in the research once contacted with rates of participation ranging between 41.1% and 83.8% of those located. Junger-Tas reports a sliding scale of response rates, more or less according to the degree of the contact with the criminal justice system, ranging from 60% for those with no contact, to 34% for those with recorded police contact (Junger-Tas 1989). The conclusion that can be attained from these statistics is that self-reporting surveys are unable to produce an accurate figure of uncovered crime as it under-represents certain groups.

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Victimization Surveys  

victimization surveys attempts to uncover hidden crime by surveying a representative sample of a chosen population over crimes committed against them (Coleman and Moynihan 1996). Unlike self-reported studies, victimization surveys survey the victim rather than the perpetrator. Those who utilize this technique are aiming to capture crimes, which do not enter official statistics as they are unreported. If similar surveys are carried out over intervals of time, then crime trends can be discovered (Coleman and Moynihan 1996). There are three main types of victimization surveys: local, national and international. Local surveys are small scale and geographically ...

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