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The dark figure of crime is not to be confused with the dark figure of death, and it is not the same as the dark figure of murder. The dark figure of crime refers to an individual who commits a crime while not actually being seen by the police. This can mean anything from borrowing money from a friend to selling stolen goods and receiving stolen goods back. The dark figure of crime also includes individual who are alleged to have committed crimes but have somehow managed to get off scot-free.


Crime statistics can show only a limited angle of actual crime. Administrative records only include crimes that are reported and recorded or discovered by the police or justice system authorities. Therefore, a considerable number of crimes committed in a society have not been registered nor are they reflected in official statistics. In criminology there is a dark zone of criminality; known as the “dark figure” or “black figure”. The Japanese prosecutor Shigema Oba mentioned the concept of Dunkelziffer, the dark figure that we know in English as “dark figure”, for the first time in his dissertation in Germany in the year 1908.

A high rate of the dark figure prevents key actors from properly understanding the crime problem, for example; what are the critical zones and times where crimes occur, what are the most frequent crimes or the characteristics of the victims. The above information is important for the design of public policies to prevent crime and their evaluation. Crime victimization surveys are a tool to illuminate the dark area of ​​crime and expand the information obtained in crime statistics. In particular, surveys are the first source of information on crimes that people rarely report, such as domestic violence. This information helps to better design public policies, in terms of public safety and crime prevention; Without a doubt, in general, most of the victimization surveys are only representative at the national or state level and information is lacking at the local level.

The first part of this article describes the origins of the dark figure and the factors that influence victims to report or not report a crime; Because not all crimes are reported to the police, they are therefore not reflected in police statistics.

The second part of the article shows the dark figure in different countries and offers a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of victimization surveys; to measure the crime prevalence rate compared to registered crimes, in addition to some problems in the comparison of the dark figure at the international level.

The last part shows differences in the dark figure between the states of Mexico and factors related to the variation in the rate of non-reporting of a crime at the state level. The article concludes with proposals to the authorities to reduce the proportion of crimes not reported to the police.

Origins of the dark cipher

The variation in the dark figure over time and from country to country has mainly three sources. One is the ability of police and judicial authorities to uncover independent crimes. This is especially important for victimless crimes like drug trafficking. Another source is jurisdictions’ rules for counting offenses. Not all crimes that are reported or discovered by the police are captured in crime statistics. For example, in Mexico, only in the event that the authorities initiate a preliminary investigation, the incident is counted in the statistics. Errors in processing or lack of response from a police department are other reasons why the same actual number of incidents varies between different jurisdictions. The most important source of the dark figure is a victim’s decision to report a crime.

A victim’s or witness’s decision to report a crime depends on many factors. Before reporting, the victim must recognize themselves as the victim of a crime and feel that the incident is important enough to report it to the authorities. Cultural customs or society’s attitudes towards certain acts can influence this, for example: domestic violence is not yet accepted as a crime in many cultures and in others only recently. In addition, sexual taboos and other social taboos may prevent the victim from reporting a crime, particularly sexual assault or rape. It depends on the uses and customs in society; the victim may feel that it is a private matter and take the law into their own hands or use traditional or informal institutions.

Another important factor that influences the decision of the victim and the ease of reporting to the authorities. The efficiency of the police in solving a case, the protection of the aggressor and trust in the authorities in general, all of this influences the decision of the victim. The possibility of receiving compensation for the criminal’s damage or insurance, particularly important for some crimes such as vehicle theft

Goudriaan (2006) developed a theoretical model to explain reasons why victims may decide to report or not report a crime. Its socio-ecological model includes a “cost-benefit” analysis to explain the victim’s decision. Apart from the economic costs and benefits of a complaint, the model contains other factors that can influence the decision; such as social norms and the context in which the crime occurs. Figure 1 shows the factors related to the victim’s decision. According to Goudrian, after a crime occurs, the victim analyzes the costs and benefits of a complaint. The costs are for example: transaction costs to report to the authorities (transport costs, loss of time, etc.). An incident call center or the ability to report online can lower the transaction costs of reporting a crime to the police.

Another cost may be the risk that the offender wants to take revenge on the victim by reporting it to the police. Apart from the costs of a complaint there are also possible benefits. One of those is to prevent new crimes against oneself or other people. A complaint is also for the aggressor to be punished as revenge for the act. Likewise, a complaint can be used to recover stolen objects or receive compensation in the event that the police arrest the perpetrator of the crime. It is also possible that a report is a condition for receiving an insurance payment. The victim usually performs an unconscious cost-benefit analysis. Among the factors that influence the decision to report a crime to the police are: the context in which the crime occurred, whether the aggressor is a known person, the culture and norms of the victim and her environment, the existence of informal instructions to solve , their degree of individualism and the victim’s trust in the authorities.

Empirical studies show that the type and seriousness of the crime and the damage to the victim influence the victim’s decision to make a complaint, for example, the value of the stolen items. Other factors identified by empirical studies are the context in which the crime occurred, the socioeconomic characteristics of the victim, such as education, and the relationship with the aggressor. In addition, cultural norms and changes or attitudes to certain crimes can influence the victim’s decision. However, there is little evidence based on comparative data between countries due to the lack of a comparable methodology between the victimization studies of the countries.

Apart from the characteristics of the victim, their social context and the circumstances of the crime, academic studies have investigated how the authorities can influence the decision to report a crime or not. Some studies show a link between trust in the authorities, especially in the police and justice, and the willingness to report a crime. An important factor influencing trust in the police is public opinion about their ability to solve a crime.

Also the experiences and treatment that the victim has previously experienced with the police could influence the decision to report a crime. Murphy and Barkworth, for example, studied with data from the Australian victimization survey factors related to the willingness to report a crime and concluded that for some victims, procedural justice is more important, and for others, opinion about the effectiveness of the police. His conclusion is that both factors can explain a large variation in the rate of reporting a crime. Tolsma, Blaauw and Grotenhuis investigated with data from the Netherlands what factors, such as the ease of reporting a crime, influence a victim’s decision to report a crime.

In addition, individual characteristics such as age and characteristics of the crime also affect the victim’s trust in the police and their willingness to report. The duration of making a report and the opportunity to use different methods such as the possibility of making it online or anonymously has a significant effect on the decision to report a crime to the police, it all depends on the type of crime. In addition, the constant invitation to the victim by the police when making an official complaint and good treatment of the victim has a positive impact.




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