Handbook on the Economics of Crime
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Handbook on the Economics of Crime

Edited by Bruce L. Benson and Paul R. Zimmerman

While few economists analyzed criminal behaviour and the criminal justice process before Gary Becker’s seminal 1968 paper, an enormous body of economic research on crime has since been produced. This insightful and comprehensive Handbook reviews and extends much of this important resulting research.
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Chapter 3: The Measure of Vice and Sin: A Review of the Uses, Limitations and Implications of Crime Data

Alexander Tabarrok, Paul Heaton and Eric Helland


Alexander Tabarrok, Paul Heaton and Eric Helland1 INTRODUCTION In 1670, William Petty, founder of empirical economics, called for the collection of official statistics on ‘the number of people, the quality of inebriating liquors spent, the number of unmaryed persons between 15 and 55 years old, the number of Corporall sufferings and persons imprisoned for Crime’ all so that we might know ‘the measure of Vice and Sin in the nation’.2 Petty’s call has been answered. In this chapter we present the major sources of data on crime, brief descriptions and highlights that show the types of data that are available in each source, how these data can be accessed, how they have been in the past and may be used in the future, and some of their limitations. Our goal is to provide a guide to empirical researchers who wish to wade into the waters of vice and sin. Our primary focus will be on US crime data but we shall also discuss some of the ways in which data across countries can be usefully compared. In addition to introducing the reader to various data sets, we shall outline methodological considerations of general applicability. Crime data are collected by two methods: reporting and surveys. Each type presents researchers with benefits and drawbacks. One problem with police reports, for example, is that a large fraction of crime is unreported and the data that are reported may frequently be incomplete. Surveys capture some unreported crime but, surprisingly, fail to capture all reported...

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