Where It Is Safer or More Dangerous: Making International Comparisons

In order to bring the big picture into sharper focus during the era of globalization, it is important to remember that victimization rates vary dramati- cally not only from time to time but also from one place to another. The greatest variations can be found by comparing one society to another. Cross-national comparisons reveal the magnitude of the crime problem in different countries at one point in time.

The main source of data about victimization rates in other countries is a branch of the United Nations—its Office on Drugs and Crime Control– which periodically surveys its members’ law enforcement agencies. Also, the European Union (EU) collects data from the criminal justice systems of its member states and publishes an annual European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics. In the past, the International Police Organization (Interpol) also publicly posted data.

Since 1989, most European countries have participated in an International Crime Victim Sur- vey that generates statistics that are considered more reliable than data from police departments. Police in the various countries use different definitions for common crimes like rape, burglary, and robbery. Also, some police forces are more scrupulous about recording incidents and forwarding their data to headquarters than others. Differences in record-keeping practices can make comparisons dif- ficult too (for example, some countries do not fol- low the “hierarchy rule”), and, of course, the willingness of victims to reveal their troubles to the authorities varies dramatically from place to place (Van Dijk et al. 2007; and Loftus, 2011).

Making international comparisons of victimiza- tion rates continues to be difficult, and hasty con- clusions can be misleading. Some governments do not routinely disclose reliable and up-to-date data about their crime rates, or they publish figures that seem unrealistically low, probably because their regimes fear that high rates will damage their


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nations’ public images and scare off potential tourists and investors.

Researchers who studied cross-national crime data decades ago came to these conclusions: Com- pared to other nations providing trustworthy statis- tics, U.S. victimization rates for violent crimes were very high, for auto theft were fairly high, and for burglary were near the middle of the range (Kalish, 1988). Violence is more of a problem in the United States than in many other highly developed socie- ties, but theft is not (Zimring and Hawkins, 1997).

Narrowing the focus strictly to the number of murders in various societies still requires careful attention to methodological issues. Each country’s definitions of intentional, wrongful, punishable kill- ings reflect laws and local customs that govern the way deaths are classified. For international compar- isons to be valid, definitions of killings that consti- tute murder must be consistent. For example, not all countries consider infanticides as murders. Also, certain countries may count attempted murders as intentional homicides, but in the United States (and most other societies) cases in which wounded people survive are classified as aggravated assaults. Other inconsistencies result if a nation’s body count includes deaths from legal interventions (such as the use of deadly force by police officers and court-ordered executions), totally uninten- tional deaths (like negligent manslaughter and vehicular homicides), and assisted suicides.

The United Nations asks its member states about their crime problems and promotes the use of definitions that are as consistent as possible. These official statistics have been assembled in Table 4.1 in order to present a picture of the varia- tions in murder rates across the globe.

What very important factor do Austria, China, Denmark, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Indonesia, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Spain, South Korea, and Switzerland have in common? They are among the most peaceful societies on the planet, with a murder rate close to just one slaying per 100,000 inhabitants. As for the English-speaking advanced industrial countries, citizens of the United States have a lot more to worry about in terms of

succumbing to lethal interpersonal violence than people who reside in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Most of the countries in the EU have very low murder rates. Some of the developing nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America report that they experience levels of lethal violence that are lower than those in the United States: Morocco, Turkey, Liberia, Egypt, Vietnam, Chile, and Cuba.

Table 4.1 reveals that the people who suffer the greatest casualties tend to live in Central and South America and the offshore island nations in the Caribbean Sea, especially Honduras and Venezuela, but also Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas, the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Brazil, Mexico, and Panama. South Africa, despite the dismantling of apartheid several decades ago, also is still burdened by disturbingly high levels of bloodshed.

Note that some of the killings that boost the body count in strife-torn societies across the globe are not the outgrowth of ordinary street crime but are the result of intense political polarization, expressed as vigilantism (including slayings by death squads), terrorism, and low-intensity guerrilla warfare waged against governments by insurgent groups and drug trafficking cartels. War-torn coun- tries like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan were excluded from Table 4.1.

Some countries are strikingly different from others in terms of their economies, criminal justice systems, cultural traditions, and age distributions (for example, many developing societies have huge populations of young people and relatively few old people). Therefore, it might make more sense to limit comparisons of murder rates to fairly similar, highly industrialized nations. Because a key determinant of the murder rate in any country is simply the proportion of the population that falls into the highest risk group (young males), one way to deal with variations would be to calculate the homicide rate for every 100,000 teenage boys and young men in each society. Following this pro- cedure and then restricting the comparison only to other highly industrialized societies, the United

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States stood out as having the worst murder rate during the late 1980s (Deane, 1987; Rosenthal, 1990). Another way to take the substantial demo- graphic differences from country to country into account is to calculate the murder rate of a popula- tion and then adjust that number to reflect a stan- dardized age distribution in order to improve comparability over time and between countries.

When 1980s murder rates in different nations were analyzed, higher rates tended to be associated with great economic inequality (huge gaps between the wealthy and the poor), limited government

funding of social programs for the disadvantaged, cultural supports for legitimate violence by govern- ment officials and agencies (frequent executions and few restraints on the use of force by the police), family breakdown (high divorce rates), high rates of female participation in the labor force, and ethnic heterogeneity (see Gartner, 1990).

Clearly, geographic location—in which society a person resides—is a major factor that determines murder risks around the globe. Substantial varia- tions also can be anticipated between different cities in foreign countries. The wide range in murder

T A B L E 4.1 Murder Rates Across the Globe: Selected Countries, 2012

Country Murder Rate per 100,000

Inhabitants Country Murder Rate per 100,000

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