Wicked people exist. Character is more often wicked than errant. (James Q. Wilson)

    Just as there are many different types and kinds of violence, there are many different criminological explanations of violence.  Siegel (2004) documents eight different explanations (personal traits; ineffective families; substance abuse; human instincts; regional values; cultural values; gangs; and firearm availability), and Zimring (2007) examines the usual suspects (imprisonment rates; demography; and the economy).  With criminological explanations of violence, it is customary to distinguish between behavior that is instrumental (acts which are somehow related to an attempt to improve one's financial or social position) and expressive (simple attempts to vent rage, anger, or frustration).  Expressive forms of violence clearly outweigh instrumental forms of violence, but that doesn't mean the tactic of using violence to get ahead in life is any less important.  Ignoring the "rational" pursuit of violence leads to the mistake of assuming all violence is crazy, irrational, or a manifestation of mental illness.  One must remember that it might be possible humans are hard-wired to admire, mimic, or imitate violence, and it is further worth noting that crime rates can have "secular" rises and drops, regardless of economic, social, or environmental factors.  The endless debate over nature versus nurture may be useless because the bottom line cause might be neither. 

    Most biologists are continually telling us there is no inborn tendency toward violence, and anthropologists also tell us that history is replete with stories of peace-loving, matrilineal tribes.  However, psychological and sociological perspectives (which drive most public policy initiatives) tend to have built-in, ideological "scare tactics" that warn us about things like the "growing number of antisocials in our midst" or the "crippling effects of inner-city poverty."  Forms of violent criminal behavior, like homicide, assault, robbery, and rape, each have separate trends and trajectories.  Nonetheless, it is worth the effort to try and examine known facts and particulars (patterns and trends) to get a glimpse into the "big picture" of violent crime. 

    In the United States, violent crime skyrocketed during the mid-1960s and mid-1970s.  It leveled out, but fluctuated, within a narrow band during the late 1970s and 1980s.  Then, starting in 1991 and for about nine years afterwards, it declined about 40% on its own despite the persistence of continuing social problems.  The only other nation in the world which experienced such a spectacularly significant decline like that was Canada.  Levitt (2004) argues that the decline was due to a shrinkage in the crime age-group demography of 18-24 year olds.  Violent crime rates have continued to go down since 2001, and across the board, except for some stubbornness in aggravated assault (domestic violence mostly), and some notable shifts in weapon patterns.  For example, according to FBI statistics, starting in 2011, twice as many people are killed every year by blunt objects (hammers or clubs) than by firearms.  This is an unusual trend that flies in the face of the firearms availability theory.  Lots of theories can expect to be debunked if the great American violent crime decline continues.


    The unlawful killing of a human being by another with malice aforethought constitutes homicide.  First degree homicide requires premeditation (cold-blooded planning), and second degree homicide requires malice aforethought (a desire to kill).  Manslaughter lacks the requirement of malice aforethought, and felony murder lacks both premeditation and malice aforethought.  Voluntary manslaughter is still intentional, but the circumstances make it less than blameworthy.  Involuntary manslaughter is death that results from negligence or recklessness.  Excusable homicide results from accident or misfortune, and justifiable homicide results from noble motive or legally recognized demands.  If the victim does not die, the crime is defined as some type of aggravated assault.

    Over time, homicide rates have held the promise of going down, that is, there is a long-term downward trend, but good years are often followed by bad years.  Except for an unusual surge in the late Sixties (25,000) and an unusual decline in the late Nineties (18,000), most of the recent decades of the twentieth century were characterized by 20,000 homicides a year.  Fluctuations from year to year tend to be little more than 5% up or down either way.  The patterns for aggravated assault are quite different.  Aggravated assault is the intentional causing of bodily harm with or without a deadly weapon, or the attempt or threat thereof.  Aggravated assault is distinguished from simple assault where the physical injury is, or could be, relatively minor.  Official crime statistics don't track simple assaults because they just involve fights or brawls in which there's a black eye or chipped tooth, and when criminologists talk about assaults, they're usually talking about aggravated assaults.  Assaults have been increasing steadily over the last 100 years.  Currently, the assault rate runs at a little over 1 million per year, but fluctuations can be severe, as much as up or down 35% per year.  The most frequent weapons used are blunt objects (36%), hands, fists, or feet (28%), guns (18%), and knives (17%).  The overwhelming majority of offenders are males between the ages of 15 and 34 years of age, and alcohol consumption is typically related to the offense.

    The highest homicide rates have consistently been found in Third World countries (Rahav 1990).  This has led many theorists to speculate that homicide has something to do with inequality, perhaps the sense of desperation that comes from living in poverty and disorganization, or perhaps the sense of relative deprivation that occurs for some groups when elites are living in prosperity.  In developed countries, such as the United States, the highest homicide rates have consistently been found in the South.  This is called the Southerness hypothesis (technically the Gastil-Hackney thesis) in criminology, which involves the study of many factors, such as climate, culture, and gun ownership (which is high in the South).  The linkages between guns and alcohol and violent crime are undeniable as lethality factors, as is the quality of medical care.   Assaults, for example (where the victim survives) tend to be concentrated in Western states.  In the U.S., criminal violence is also strongly associated with big cities, and where there are large concentrations of African-Americans.  It's hard to ignore the sex (male), age (under 25), race (African American), and residency (urban) correlates of criminal violence, since well over half (and nearly three quarters) of violent offenders are characterized by this demographic profile (Miethe & McCorkle 1998), which is also known in criminology as the subculture of violence hypothesis.  In rank order, cities like New Orleans, Washington, St. Louis, Detroit, Atlanta, Birmingham, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York have homicide rates that are frequently five times the national average of 8.2 per 100,000 population.  Cities like Little Rock and San Bernardino have the highest rates of aggravated assault.

    FBI crime reports indicate the vast majority of homicides involve acquaintances or relatives (75%) rather than strangers (25%).  Females victims are more likely to be murdered by a current or former intimate partner, while males are more likely to be murdered by an acquaintance or friend (BJS 2006).  A similar pattern holds true for assault: acquaintances or relatives (60%) versus strangers (40%).  In recent years, however, stranger violence is increasing, as are drive-bys, serial and mass murder.  Serial homicide primarily involves the targeting of strangers.   Homicide is mostly an intra-racial event since 95% of the time, offender and victim are of the same race (Decker 1993).  NCVS data indicate both homicides and assaults most frequently occur on Saturday nights between the hours of 8 p.m. and 2 a.m.  Slightly more crimes are committed during the warmest months (July and August) and during December (especially for homicide, robbery, and burglary).  Perpetrators of homicide are unlikely to be first-time offenders because at least 50% of the time they will have a criminal record involving either a "hostile" pattern of priors, an "instrumental" pattern of priors, or an "unclassifiable" pattern of priors (Trojan & Gabrielle 2011).

   In 1958 criminologist Marvin Wolfgang coined the term "victim precipitation" to describe where the victim is the first begin the interplay of criminal violence (by drawing a gun or striking the first blow).  Subsequent criminologists have followed up on this idea by describing the typical "character contests" that occur in a typical interchange between offender, victim, and sometimes an audience.  David Luckenbill's (1977) model of five stages is the most well-known of these, as follows:


    The phrase "sexual assault" best describes all the legal categories for sexual offenses, which range from forcible rape (unlawful carnal knowledge by force without consent) to a variety of other sexual activities, including molestation and exhibitionism.  Virtually all criminologists regard rape as a crime of violence rather than sexual offense, but rape can also be committed by economic (marital rape) and social (date rape) coercion.  Statutory (teen) rape can also occur without force and with consent.  Molestation (of a child) can range from mild fondling to sadomasochism.  Exhibitionism can range from rubbing up against a person to "flashing" one's lack of underclothes.  The one thing they have in common is the mixture of a sexual urge with the desire to dominate, pursue, capture, pressure, cajole, bully, seduce, or "persuade" another person to come around to "their" way of thinking -- that it is the offender's right to hunt and hound their prey (Box 1983).  These vile predators firmly believe their victims will eventually come around to believing that satisfaction of their pleasure is also their victim's pleasure.  The consensus of most experts is that, in 80 to 85 percent of all rape cases, the victim knows the defendant, and this is the factor that makes this an underreported crime.

    As psychologically intriguing as the study of sexual offending is, the fact is we aren't really sure whether known sex offenders are similar to those who go undetected.  This is a consequence of the low reporting rate for sexual assaults.  Victims only report a small fraction of offenses for many reasons: "It was a private matter"; "didn't think anything could be done"; or "afraid of reprisal from offender."  It seems reasonable to assert that what we do know is based on socially inept or careless offenders.  Over time, rape rates have fluctuated wildly, but there is a long-term upward trend.  Periods with low rates include the 1930s and 1950s.  Every other decade has seen high rates, with the most dramatic increases from 1965 to 1995.  Currently, about 450,000 rapes or attempted rapes occur every year in America, and the figures for sex offenses (other than prostitution) are about two to three times higher than that.  These high official figures mean the United States has the highest sex offense rates in the world.  Rwanda is the only other country to come close, and the U.S. is still four times higher than it.   

    As with homicide and assault, rape is more likely to be committed by someone the victim knows.  It is also an intra-racial crime, 54% of the time involving whites, 45% of the time involving African Americans, and 1% of the time involving other races.  Males account for 99% of arrestees, and the 1% of females convicted of rape only play an accomplice role.  Females take a more active role in 10% of other sex offenses, such as molestation and exhibitionism.  There is a trimodal age distribution of sex offenders:  one group being young (age 15-19) and involved more in gang rapes; a second group being the same as murderers (age 20-24) and involved in "classic" forcible rapes; and a third group being older (age 25-29) and involved in molestation and exhibitionism.  Most sexual offenses occur during summer months (July and August) between the hours of 6 p.m. and midnight on weekends.  Weapons are rarely involved, only about 10% of the time.

    Unlike homicide and assault, rape and sexual offending occur mostly in medium sized cities, followed by rural areas, and then only thirdly in metropolitan areas.  Sex crimes have some interesting geography.  Cities with populations of 250,000, 350,000, or 450,000, like Des Moines, Kansas City, and Milwaukee (a Midwestern pattern), tend to have the highest rape rates, and then in their suburbs, and then only if the area has a large number of renter-occupied dwellings.  Such areas also typically have a high percentage of one-parent, female-headed households, high unemployment, and high divorce rates.  Such patterns have suggested to many criminologists that gender inequality plays an important role with sex crime rates (Schwendinger & Schwendinger 1983).  Controversy exists over the role of prostitution (sexual permissiveness) in creating a climate conducive to sexual offending.  The link between pornography and sex crime has been extensively studied, and the consensus of experts is that any linkage is absent or weak (Reiss & Roth 1993).  There is, however, strong evidence to suggest that anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of sex offenders suffer from some sort of antisocial personality disorder (Prentky & Quinsey 1988). 


    Along with murder and rape, a variety of other violent behaviors go on inside families and between close acquaintances like girlfriends and boyfriends.  Wife beating (also called domestic, or intimate, violence) is perhaps the most common form of interpersonal harm.  There are, however, seven ways to inflict harm on a spouse or acquaintance: (1) physically; (2) sexually; (3) verbally; (4) psychologically; (5) spiritually; (6) economically; and (7) socially.  Every year, approximately 1.8 million women are treated in hospital emergency rooms for physical injuries suffered at the hands of a spouse, ex-spouse, current boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend (Straus et. al. 1980).  Time magazine once reported in 1983 that 6 million wives are abused every year.  The number of actual, unreported cases may be four to five times higher.  Some estimates of domestic violence are as high as 66% of all relationships. Less than one in ten cases get reported to police.  No one good source of estimated numbers is available.

    In point of fact, it is impossible to accurately measure the amount of domestic violence and abuse.  There are few agreed-upon definitions, attitudes vary, and it was not that long ago when society tolerated it.  Pennsylvania, for example, had a law up until the 1970s that only prohibited husbands from beating their wives after 10 p.m. and on Sundays.  The phrase "rule of thumb" also comes from English common law which allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick as long as it was no thicker than his thumb.  What we do know is that wife beating is an escalatory, serial offense.  The offender starts off slapping, shoving, and pushing (stays or moves onto a different relationship), escalates to hitting, burning, and slapping (stays or moves onto a different relationship), and then escalates to shooting and beating to death.  Many victims tend to stay in these relationships, being passive and nonassertive, fulfilling their feminine role demurely, being sexually "giving" when their husbands are drunk, and never saying any public word about being beaten.

    Lower class sex role socialization has been suggested as a cause by many researchers (Hamburger & Renzetti 1996).  Among the lower classes, there is presumably a myth among men that women sometimes enjoy the attention of a beating, and an equally ridiculous belief among women that they should stand by their man, no matter what.  Pregnant women tend to be particular targets 40% of the time, and younger women more likely become victims than older women.  Race and ethnicity tend to be only minimally related to the phenomenon.  The greatest risk is posed by former partners after the couple has split up, although stressful holidays (like Christmas) and Super Bowl Sundays tend to be risky periods for couples who are still together.  Among offenders, a history of alcoholism, economic insecurity, and sometimes involvement in athletics (the Super Jock syndrome) and the military tend to be correlates.  In criminology, there is the cycle of violence thesis used to explain the escalation patterns of repeat victimization, and the intergenerational thesis used to explain the one-third of offenders who learned how to become abusers by growing up in a family where they witnessed abuse.  

    Family violence also takes the forms of child abuse, sibling abuse, and elder abuse.  In any given year, 20% of children are assaulted by one of their parents by kicking or punching.  Gallup polls regularly indicate that at least 5% of parents believe it is all right to punch their children.  The rates of infanticide are increasing.  Each year, an estimated 2,000 children die at the hands of their parents or primary caregivers.  Mothers, rather than fathers, tend to be more involved in the abuse of children, but child abuse wasn't really "discovered" until 1962 by pediatric radiologists, and since then, we have found that about 50% of it is at the hands of mothers and 50% of it is at the hands of fathers.  Incest, however, is predominately a father-daughter affair 70% of the time.  Some estimates put the amount of sexual abuse of children at 1.3 million a year.  Physical abuse of children increases the odds of future delinquency or adult criminality by 40% (Widom 1992), and sexual abuse of children has been linked in some studies to future acts of prostitution.  Sibling abuse is widely tolerated as normal behavior, and there are no known estimates of its prevalence.  It is estimated that one million elderly people (over age 65) are abused every year, primarily by their spouses 60% of the time.  Men are the most common victims of elder abuse.  Depression and paranoia tend to be common among domestic violence offenders, but these could easily be the consequences of an incident rather than the cause.  


    While most of the crimes above are typically committed by young, male, lower class African Americans with drug, alcohol, and economic problems, there are other crimes, equally if not more violent, committed by whites, other minorities, and successful people.  Drunk driving, for example, kills more Americans yearly (25,000) than are killed by homicide, and drunk driving is primarily a crime by whites.  It has been estimated that on weekends, about 12% (one in eight) drivers on road are legally drunk (8% on weekdays).  Traffic accidents are the primary cause of death for people between 6 and 28 years of age, and 50% of lethal vehicle crashes are alcohol-related.  There are many controversies regarding drunk driving.  Many criminal justice studies have shown the futility of crackdowns, as nothing the police do seems to change the fact that many offenders get away with it (apprehension rates tend to be, at best, only 1 in 82 offenders, and are more typically 1 in 2000 most of the time).  Many forensic science studies have questioned the wisdom of lowering BAC (blood alcohol concentration) limits, which appears to be the favorite response of lawmakers, along with stiffer penalties.  Public awareness campaigns do seem to work however, and this is basically a type of offense pattern that many people just "grow out" of.     

    Occupational and corporate crime can result in violence, and there are many, many different definitions of occupational and corporate crime.  Occupational crime (also sometimes called white collar crime) is crime committed through opportunity created in the course of a legal occupation.  White collar crime involving big corporations (also called corporate crime) causes somewhere between 30,000 and 55,000 deaths a year, primarily through faulty consumer products, pollution, radioactivity, and toxic waste dumping.  Also every year, there are 100,000 deaths from work-related accidents, many of those resulting from unsafe working conditions in the workplace, and directly connectable to at least the negligence or recklessness of supervisors.

    Corporate crime can be quite harmful, as the 1977 Ford Pinto case revealed.  These cars burst into flames with the slightest rear end collision.  Executives at Ford Motor calculated it was less costly to pay off each of the 180 burn deaths with $200,000 payments than to spend $137 million recalling all the defective cars to replace an $11 part.  Such logic is standard business practice.  Some professional crime can be considered violent.  Physicians, for example, perform an estimated two million unnecessary surgeries a year, fleecing the victims, insurance companies, and taxpayers.  Government crime can also be quite violent when it fails to protect, say, the 41% of Americans who have no health insurance, neglects its homeless population, allows police brutality, or uses its own citizens as guinea pigs in experiments.    

    Organized crime is the hardest type of violent crime to define, but it tends to be crime that has no ideology (it's all about money and power), is hierarchical or quasi-bureaucratic (with a leadership structure, rules and regulations, and division of labor), self-perpetuating (it persists through time), and aims toward monopoly (domination of a city, city section, or entire industry).  Over time, organized crime tends to captivate 5% of a nation's economy (40% in Russia), and is quite lethal in its methods for coming to power.  Controversies exist in criminology over exactly how "organized" is organized crime, the role of kinship ties, the role of a common ethnic heritage, and what is the best way to fight it.                      

BJS Report on Firearms Injuries

BJS Report on Homicide Trends
Bookmarks for Online Resources on Child Abuse
Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence

Domestic Violence Information Manual

Homicide Research Working Group

Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community

Marvin Wolfgang's Subculture of Violence Theory

OJP Office on Violence Against Women

National Consortium on Violence Research

PAVNET (Partnerships Against Violence Network)

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Last updated: Jan. 04, 2013
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Citation: O'Connor, T.  (2013). "Patterns and Trends in Violent Crime," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from