Violent crime is a crime involving force or the threat of force against a person or persons. It includes crimes such as robbery, murder, rape, and assault. Crimes of violence account for slightly more than 20 percent of all crime. According to both the Uniform Crime Report (UCR), which tallies the crimes known to the police, as well as the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which reports victimization rates from surveys of victims who may or may not have reported the crime, violent crime rates have been decreasing for over a decade. Since 2000 the rate of crime has decreased more than 8 percent. Murder rates in 2005 were down more than 25 percent compared with 1995 figures.
Different regions of the United States experienced somewhat different trends, with the greatest reduction in the Northeast and the smallest reduction in violent crime rates overall in the South, a region with historically high crime rates and, more specifically, higher violent crime rates. In 2004, 90 percent of violent crimes occurred in metropolitan statistical areas. In 2004, according to the NCVS, most victims of violence were between the ages of 12 and 24. Moreover, males are much more likely to be victims of violent crime and also much more likely to be the perpetrators. African Americans have the highest rates of violent victimization as do individuals living in households with the lowest incomes.
Media Misperceptions and Violent Crime
Many Americans believe that violent crime is becoming more of a social problem despite the decline in violent crime rates. In fact, violent crime rates in the past 2 decades peaked in 1994 and have been steadily declining ever since then. One of the main reasons for this misperception is that the media focus on violent crimes, in both television crime dramas and news coverage. Crime is the fourth largest category of news coverage, after sports, business, and general interest/ entertainment categories. Some studies show that about one fourth of crimes that are reported in the news are murders, although its percentage of total crime is quite low (generally under 0.1 percent) and it constitutes only 1 percent of all violent crime.
The UCR Crime Clock in 2006 revealed that every 30.9 minutes a murder occurred, every 5.7 minutes a forcible rape, a robbery every 1.2 minutes, and an aggravated assault every 37 seconds. Clearly, murder is the least common of the aforementioned crimes. Although murder grabs the newsmakers’ attention, not all murders are equally likely to show up in the news. Rather, homicides involving unusual victims, like children or the elderly, or homicides involving celebrities are more likely to make the news. Additionally, even though about 90 percent of all homicides are intraracial, the media are more likely to report on a homicide wherein an African American kills a Caucasian.
Generally, when people think of violent crimes, they think of crimes committed by strangers. Again, this is based on media portrayals of crime in which the media focus on the rarer, more sensational crimes involving strangers. Yet crimes like child abuse, sibling abuse, elder abuse, and intimate partner abuse are much more common than assaults by strangers, and the violence committed by a loved one is often more likely to have a longer-lasting negative effect on the victim. Further, even in the most violent of crimes— murder—perpetrator and victim are more likely to have known one another.
The Politics of Violent Crime
The social construction of crime leads to changes in policies that are not necessarily focused on reducing violent crime. Rather, the perception of violent crime as a significant social problem can lead to policies that increase governmental control over certain subpopulations for the manifest purpose of fighting crime but with the latent intent on keeping certain population segments in greater check by increasing surveillance. For example, many people assume that the primary aim of the USA PATRIOT Act was to reduce terrorism, but some of its applications have dealt with numerous types of crimes and criminals.
The definition and interpretation of violent crime are also at issue. For example, corporate crimes resulting in a conscious decision to do something (or not do something) that leads to numerous deaths does not constitute murder under any statutes. White-collar crime that causes a great deal of devastation usually results in shorter prison sentences than do street crimes. Additionally, the politics of violent crime often include treating violent crimes differently, depending on the victim-offender relationship. For example, marital rape is often taken less seriously in the criminal justice system than is stranger rape. Even robbery, where the victim and offender had some kind of prior relationship, receives less serious treatment than if the victim and offender are strangers.
- Brownstein, Henry H. 2000. The Social Reality of Violence and Violent Crime. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
- Surette, Ray. 2006. Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice: Images, Realities, and Policies. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
- Walker, Samuel. 2005. Sense and Nonsense about Crime and Drugs. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
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