The study of homicide invokes a scientific investigation of the frequency, nature, and causes of one human being killing another. As researchers explore criminal homicide, they tend to examine murder and nonnegligent manslaughter as defined by official sources (such as the UCR), which excludes justifiable homicide, manslaughter caused by negligence, suicide, or attempted murders. There are generally two national sources of homicide data—the Uniform Crime Reporting Program of the FBI and mortality files from the Vital Statistics Division of the National Center for Health Statistics. Even though these data sources are not without limitations, particularly as they relate to missing data on key characteristics of victims or offenders involved in these incidents, homicide remains the most accurately recorded and documented offense relative to other types of criminal behavior.
One of the most critical questions facing scholars and policymakers today is this: Why did homicide rates decline so considerably during the 1990s? As described here, UCR Supplemental Homicide Reports show that homicide rates fell sharply in U.S. cities in the 1990s. In fact, homicides were almost cut in half, declining approximately 46% during this 10-year period and plunging to their lowest point in 35 years. Scholars have offered a number of potential explanations, including greater police presence, prison expansion, reduced handgun availability, tapering drug (specifically crack cocaine) markets, gains in the economy, and age shifts in the population. Unfortunately, a lack of data and other measurement issues restrict definitive tests of these ideas and explanations.
Because the reasons for the crime drop remain largely unanswered, scholars have moved toward both documenting the potential differences in homicide trends across specific groups and exploring the nature of homicide trends in more detail. Two examples of recent efforts are provided: (1) the study of racial patterns in homicide trends and evidence of a convergence in black and white homicide rates over time and (2) research on how homicide among intimate partners differ by gender of the victim, type of relationship, and race, and recent attempts to explain the different trends in intimate partner homicides over time. As these examples clearly show, total homicide rates mask the nature of the crime drop, ignoring the diversity in trends and differences in life circumstances across groups based on race, gender, and other characteristics. The reality of the crime drop and an understanding of homicide trends over time require moving beyond a general investigation of total homicide rates to explore homicides among distinct groups more closely.
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