Does Measurement Error Distort Our Perception of Crime Rates?

41 Pages Posted: 2 May 2023

See all articles by Richard T. Boylan

Richard T. Boylan

Rice University - Department of Economics


Accurate data on crime rates is essential for evaluating many social programs. However, in the United States, officials often impute crime rates to compensatefor the 20--40% of agencies that do not report crime statistics. I show that all commonly used methods underestimate crime. First, I show that passage of state laws requiring agencies to report crime leads to a 16--23% increase in local jurisdictions' crime rates, depending on the methodology. Thus, current methods underestimate local jurisdictions' crimes rates in states that do not require crime reporting. Second, I compare commonly used murder estimates to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) homicide measure, which is widely believed to be accurate. I find that county murder estimates reflect only 78--87% of homicides, and that state reporting requirements increase the estimated number of murders by 8%--19%. Moreover, undercounting crime can lead one to underestimate the impact of crime-inducing policies.   I illustrate this finding by showing that the introduction of casinos in rural counties increases the number of homicides by 1.17 per 100,000, but the number of murders rises by only 0.36--0.85 per 100,000. Finally, I provide empirical justification for studies that restrict their analysis to large jurisdictions, by showing that this sampling restriction significantly reduces measurement error.

Keywords: Crime rates, measurement error

Suggested Citation

Boylan, Richard T., Does Measurement Error Distort Our Perception of Crime Rates?. Available at SSRN: or

Richard T. Boylan (Contact Author)

Rice University - Department of Economics ( email )

6100 South Main Street
Houston, TX 77005
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics