Incidence is defined as the frequency with which offenders commit crime. More specifically, it is the number of times a criminal behavior is observed during a particular time frame. Incidence tends to be unevenly distributed and skewed, which means most individuals will report very little, if any, criminal activity, while a small number of individuals will report high levels of criminal activity. In addition, incidence is influenced by demographic characteristics. Certain groups have higher incidence rates than other groups; for example, gender is an important variable, with males having higher incidence of criminal behavior than females. To control for such factors, incidence is usually reported as a rate.
Incidence can be measured using official crime data such as those provided by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program or by self-report surveys. In official crime data, incidence is measured as the average number of offenses per offender, which is calculated by dividing the number of offenses reported by the number of offenders arrested during a specified time period. In self-report surveys, the respondent reports the number of times he or she has engaged in a particular criminal behavior in a given period of time. Incidence is more commonly measured by self-report surveys due to the methodological problems associated with official crime data.
The measurement of incidence using official crime data is influenced by two critical problems. First is the underreporting of crime. The National Crime Victimization Survey estimates that only 50% of all crime is reported. The underreporting of crime generates an underestimation of the number of offenses and adversely impacts incidence. Second is the low clearance rate for most types of crimes. The UCR estimates a clearance rate of 20% for serious felonies. The low clearance rate causes an overestimation of incidence per offender, since many of the offenders are not apprehended.
When incidence is measured using a self-report study, three problems can impact the accuracy of the measure. The first problem with self-report studies is the veracity of the respondent: Only to the extent that the respondent answers the survey honestly will the respondent’s measured incidence rate be an accurate representation of his or her true incidence rate. The next two problems focus on the quality of the respondent’s memory. The respondent can suffer from memory decay, which is a problem where the respondent does not recall the details of his or her behavior such as how often he or she has engaged in the behavior. This is especially problematic when the respondent engages in the behavior frequently and incidents blur together. Typically, memory decay causes self-report surveys to underestimate incidence. The other problem with the respondent’s memory is telescoping, which is when the respondent reports a behavior that occurred prior to the time period covered by the survey. Telescoping causes an overestimation of incidence.
- Pepper, J. V., & Petrie, C. V. (2003). Measurement problems in criminal justice research: Workshop summary. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
- Tracey, P. E., Jr. (1990). Prevalence, incidence, rates and other descriptive measures. In K. L. Kempf (Ed.), Measurement issues in criminology (pp. 51–78). New York: Springer-Verlag.
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