What is a Dark Figure of Crime?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The dark figure of crime is a term used to describe the real crime rate, as opposed to that derived from statistics that measure reported crime. The term, attributed to 19th century Belgian sociologist Adolphe Quetelet, reveals an inherent flaw in the determination of a crime rate for a location, region, or nation. Since some crimes go unreported or are ignored based on lack of evidence or law enforcement prioritization, the actual figure can never really be determined.

Woman posing
Woman posing

According to experts, recorded crime shares three basic components that allow its inclusion in statistics. First, there must be an awareness that a criminal act has occurred. Second, the crime must be reported to the appropriate agency. Third, the reporting agency must agree to file the report. The dark figure of crime can account for any crimes that lack any one of these three principles; unfortunately, many experts suggest that it is quite easy for the reporting process to break down at any stage, meaning that the real figure could potentially be a very significant number.

In order to know that a crime has been committed, a person must realize that an act was illegal. This can cause problems, particularly when people from many cultures with many different legal systems are in one location. A recent immigrant may have no idea about laws involving privacy, harassment, or even abuse, and therefore not know that he or she has the right to report a crime.

Even when someone realizes that a crime has been committed, that doesn't mean that he or she will report it. Certain crimes, such as rape, sexual abuse, and harassment, are believed to be particularly under-reported due to high rates of victim shame and fear that sometimes accompany sexual crimes. Fear in general is believed to play an important part in the under-reporting of crime in general; some experts suggest that people are sometimes too frightened by knowledge of a crime to risk their own safety by reporting it.

The third area that draws uncertainty into crime statistics is the accuracy of law enforcement reporting. Some reports of crime, such as petty theft, may be unsubstantiated by evidence and may go unreported even if law enforcement personnel believe that the crime occurred. Unfortunately, with prioritization being a necessary constant of law enforcement, people who cannot produce much evidence may be unsuccessful at having a crime accurately reported and managed.

There are some methods that crime scientists and criminologists use to try and get a handle on the dark figure of crime. Examining certain questionnaires, such as scientific studies on victimization, can help determine the amount of discrepancy between the crimes reported in an area and the crimes that have actually occurred. No method, however, can provide foolproof results. Crime analysts continue to struggle with actual crime statistics as they have throughout history, always aware that the lack of accurate reporting prevents efficiency and effectiveness in crime prevention measures.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


A massive number of dark crimes have been and continue to be committed in Canada. The main reason these crimes are "dark" is because of item three on the conditions for a crime to enter the statistics (the reporting agency must agree to file the report - the RCMP - Royal Canadian Mounted Police flatly refuses to acknowledge or even investigate the existence of randomly buried bodies of indigenous children on the grounds of Canadian religious schools).

This is Canadian government corruption covering up slow genocide, biological warfare (children forced to play and sleep with TB infected children at these schools), sex rings using these children (to this day!) and deliberate indigenous cultural destruction as well as land theft.

A feature length documentary film: "Unrepentant: Kevin Annett and Canada's Genocide" (January 2007) is available.

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