dark figure of crime | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction

The phrase dark figure of crime refers to crimes that have occurred but have not come to the attention of police.

Also known as unreported crime.

Let’s break down what we mean by the dark figure of crime. The term itself might sound mysterious, but its meaning is quite simple. The ‘dark figure’ refers to crimes that remain hidden or unknown. These are incidents of crime that take place but, for one reason or another, never make it into official crime statistics. They’re hidden, or ‘in the dark.’

Why Some Crimes Stay in the Dark

Crimes can remain in the dark for various reasons. Sometimes, victims choose not to report crimes because they fear retaliation or because they think the police won’t help. Other times, crimes might go unreported because the victim doesn’t realize a crime has occurred. For example, victims of fraud might not know they’ve been deceived until much later, if at all.

The Impact of the ‘Dark Figure’

The existence of the ‘dark figure of crime’ has important implications for understanding crime levels and trends. If a significant number of crimes are not reported, then official crime statistics may not provide a full or accurate picture of crime in a community. This can make it difficult for law enforcement agencies to allocate resources effectively or for policymakers to make informed decisions about criminal justice policies.

Estimating the ‘Dark Figure’

Because the ‘dark figure’ represents unknown crimes, it’s impossible to know its exact size. However, researchers have developed several methods to estimate it. One common method is victimization surveys, which ask people about their experiences with crime, and whether or not they reported these experiences to the police. These surveys can provide a sense of the gap between the actual occurrence of crime and what gets reported.

The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) is a method for estimating the size and nature of the dark figure of crime. This survey is conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and asks individuals whether they have been a victim of a crime in a given time period. By comparing the results of victimization surveys with official crime statistics, researchers can estimate the extent to which crimes are unreported.

Reducing the ‘Dark Figure’

Efforts to reduce the ‘dark figure of crime’ focus on encouraging crime reporting and improving trust in law enforcement. This can involve community outreach programs, public awareness campaigns about different types of crimes, and initiatives to improve police-community relations.

‘Dark Figure of Crime’ in Action

Let’s consider an example. Imagine a city where many people don’t report thefts because they believe the police are too busy with more serious crimes. This would create a ‘dark figure of crime’ for theft in that city. Official statistics might show that theft is a minor problem, but in reality, it’s much more common.


In conclusion, this is a critical concept in criminal justice, reminding us that not all crimes are reported and recorded. It poses a challenge for law enforcement and researchers, but understanding it is crucial for accurate crime analysis and effective policy-making.

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Last Modified: 06/09/2023


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