Hierarchy Rule | Definition

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

The Hierarchy Rule is a policy in the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program that mandates law enforcement to report only the gravest offense in a single criminal incident.

Before we delve into the Hierarchy Rule, it’s essential to understand the UCR program. This program is a nationwide system in the United States. It amasses and organizes data on crimes that people report to law enforcement agencies. Think of it as a giant crime database. It’s designed to help authorities and researchers understand crime trends and patterns.

Role of the Hierarchy Rule in the UCR Program

Within this program, the Hierarchy Rule plays a vital role. It ensures that crime statistics are recorded and reported precisely. When a single criminal incident involves multiple offenses, the Hierarchy Rule kicks in. It requires that only the most serious offense gets reported to the UCR program.

Hierarchy of Offenses

How does the Hierarchy Rule decide which offense is the most serious? It follows a predefined hierarchy of offenses. At the top of this hierarchy is murder and non-negligent manslaughter. These are considered the most serious offenses. Then come rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson, in that order.

For instance, let’s imagine a person gets robbed, and in the process, they are physically assaulted. Since robbery ranks higher than assault in the hierarchy, only the robbery gets reported to the UCR program.

Criticism and Use of the Hierarchy Rule

The Hierarchy Rule is not without its critics. Some argue that it can lead to underestimating the total number of crimes in a given area. Since only the most serious crime gets reported, other offenses might go unrecorded. This could create a picture of crime that’s not entirely accurate.

Despite these criticisms, the Hierarchy Rule remains widely used. Law enforcement agencies across the United States continue to rely on it. It’s an essential tool for tracking and understanding crime trends over time.

Importance of the Hierarchy Rule

The Hierarchy Rule plays a crucial role in analyzing crime. By focusing on the most serious offense, it allows for a more streamlined analysis of crime data. It helps policymakers and law enforcement to concentrate their efforts on the most severe crimes.

In a single incident where multiple offenses occur, the Hierarchy Rule steps in to prevent data clutter. It ensures that the focus remains on the crime with the greatest potential impact on the victim. This approach helps to maintain clarity in crime reporting and analysis.


The National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) is an improvement over the UCR program, specifically designed to address the issues presented by the Hierarchy Rule. While the UCR program, with its Hierarchy Rule, focuses on reporting only the most serious offense in a single incident, NIBRS takes a different approach.

NIBRS records each distinct offense in a single criminal event, a shift that provides a more comprehensive picture of crime. This way, even if a criminal incident involves multiple offenses, NIBRS does not overlook the less severe ones. It captures all of the offenses, giving a fuller account of the total crime situation.

By capturing all offenses, NIBRS provides a more in-depth, realistic view of crime. This broader perspective allows for better decision-making and strategy development in crime prevention and law enforcement. It provides detailed, high-quality data that is more useful for statistical analysis, research, planning, and policy-making.

In short, NIBRS improves upon the limitations of the Hierarchy Rule. It creates a more complete, accurate picture of crime by recording all offenses within a single incident. The adoption of NIBRS represents a significant advancement in the way crime data is collected and used in the United States.


In conclusion, the Hierarchy Rule is a significant aspect of the UCR program. Despite its potential drawbacks, it serves an essential purpose in tracking and understanding crime. By focusing on the most serious offense in a single incident, it helps to provide a clearer picture of crime trends and patterns. This, in turn, can guide policy and strategy in tackling crime.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/22/2023

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