By: Charles Bowen
With the possible exception of economic data, no numbers tell us more about the relative health of our society than crime statistics. And our readers care if the number of violent crimes is up or down. They want to know if the facts show the court system is more jammed with cases or less so. And they are concerned if you tell them the number of jail cells is inadequate. Moreover, in an election year like this one, other crime statistics — from the number of gun-related offenses to the tallies of state-sponsored executions and the population on the nation’s death rows — take on political ramifications.
Reporters, editors and columnists need fast access to current crime stats, and a federal agency is making that information available instantly on a wonderfully organized Web site. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, which compiles a vast database of knowledge about crime and the criminal justice system, not only gives us the raw data, but also has first-rate reference tools for analyzing the information right online. To use the material and the data tools, visit the site at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs, where a nicely designed introductory page provides fast clickable access to statistics in 10 categories:
1. Crime and victims, including information on crime and victim characteristics and incident-based stats.
2. Law enforcement, with numbers from state, federal, and college campus cases.
3. Prosecution, including summary findings, publications and related sites.
4. Federal justice system, with data collections, summaries, and publications.
5. Criminal offenders, with selected statistics, such as charactistics of inmates, lifetime likelihood of going to prison, recidivism, alcohol abuse, and female offenders.
6. Courts and sentencing, covering pre-trial release and detention, criminal case processing and sentencing, civil justice, court organization, and indigent defense.
7. Special topics, such as drugs, homicide trends, firearms and international stats.
8. Corrections, with numbers relating to probation and parole, jails, prisons, and capital punishment.
9. Expenditures and employment, with information on data collections, publications and related sites.
10. Criminal record systems, covering topics such as background firearm checks, sex offender registries, and related subjects.
Also of note on the main page is the “Key Facts at a Glance” option. Click here for statistical reports on subjects such as “Trends in Federal Investigations and Prosecutions” and “Trends in Felony Convictions in State Courts.”
In addition, you can search the entire site for statistics on specific topics or locations. Located in the upper-right corner of the introductory screen is a data entry box. Enter a word or phrase to start the search process. Results then are displayed on a page that is topped with a new search box inviting you to narrow the field by searching those results with an additional word or phrase. In addition, a drop-down menu lets you re-sort the results by titles, most recent entries, or relevance.
Other considerations for using the Bureau of Justice Statistics site in your writing and editing:
1. For online slicing and dicing of the data in the BJS reservoirs, check out the links listed in the “Data for Analysis” section at the right of the introductory screen. Of particular interest here is the “Data Online” link, which transports you to a page on which you can compare and contrast figures from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, the Law Enforcement Management and Administration Statistics, and/or homicide trends and characteristics. State and local data abound in this section.
2. Looking for statistics you can work with off-line? See the Spreadsheets link of the “Data for Analysis” section. Most of the downloadable files, described on pages displayed with the link, are in .wk1 format, making them easily readable by most spreadsheet and statistical analysis software.
3. A Datasets and Codebooks link in the “Data for Analysis” section provides links to resources from three agencies within the U.S. Justice Department, including the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the FBI. Also in the download materials are reports placed by individual researchers in the criminal justice field. Online tabulations are available for some datasets using the Data Analysis System.
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