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What are the strengths and weaknesses of official data, self reported data, and victimization data in measuring the nature and extent of juvenile delinquency and youth crime?

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Official data refers to crime statistics, while self-reported data refers to data collected from individuals through anonymous or cross-sectional surveys, interviews or focus groups. The nature of this data is quite different, and victimization data is largely self-reported.

Official data is collected via established means. For example, if a County...

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Official data refers to crime statistics, while self-reported data refers to data collected from individuals through anonymous or cross-sectional surveys, interviews or focus groups. The nature of this data is quite different, and victimization data is largely self-reported.

Official data is collected via established means. For example, if a County wants to know every person arrested, then track that individual through the criminal justice system in their charge, appearance, plea, conviction and resolution there are complex data collection systems and data management systems in place. These may be improved, but they run largely on their own in an extremely complex web of multiple criminal justice jurisdictions. In the case of juvenile offenders, the system is less complex but it still involves a juvenile court, police system, jail and juvenile probation system. There is usually an educational system interface.

So official data is extensive and is collected through observation (for example, arresting officers will report on appearance and even race), structured interviews, and research of the official record, i.e. the offenders contact information, educational background, neighborhood, etc.

Self-reported data is more free-form, and sometimes more qualitative in nature. For example, a counselor's notes (although official) can be considered self-report because the counselor records what she is seeing and hearing through an unstructured, unofficial encounter. Other examples of self-report are victim statements, notes from diversion programs, data from pilot studies and research studies. These programs, unlike official data, are often ad-hoc, temporary, and the data isn't necessarily stored in one location.

Self-reported data is not as accurate or objective as "official" data, but it can provide more information. The reason for this is that open-ended questions are asked, or the victim (or family member, or other person) speaks freely without the restraints of a structured interview.

It is is simplistic to say self-reported data is less objective or accurate, but this is often how juvenile justice systems see it. Official case files are the central storage area for data, and hard data such as offense, arrest date, resolution is fundamental to managing and monitoring youth cases.

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The challenge with official data when it comes to any type of crime is that not all crimes go reported. Crimes associated with juveniles which are perceived as minor, such as petty theft, often go unreported because victims do not believe that police have the manpower or the desire to follow up on such crimes. These victims therefore perceive that it would be a waste of their time to follow up on such matters.

The strength of official data, of course, is that it can be trusted from an accuracy and truthfulness point of view.

Self-reported or victimization data, on the other hand, could enable researchers to get a better idea of the true scale of crime. On the down side, because they are not necessarily talking to an officer of the law, victims may provide fictitious or exaggerated accounts of the crime that was committed against them.

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In answering this question, I will take self-reported data and victimization data to be the same thing.  The reason for this is that victimization data is data that is obtained by asking people about whether they have been the victims of any crimes.  This is, therefore, a self-reported type of data.

The major strength of official data on juvenile crime is that they are objectively true in an important way.  When an official record is made of a crime, it means that a crime has clearly been committed.  There is no need to wonder if the report is accurate.  A second strength of such data is that it is separated out into consistent categories.  This makes it easier for a researcher to identify the nature of the crime that was committed.  The major weakness of this sort of data, however, is that it may not necessarily cover all of the crimes that are actually committed.  There may be many crimes that are committed but which are not reported to authorities.  This could happen, for example, because the victim does not trust the authorities or because he or she fears retribution for going to those authorities. 

This is where the strength of self-reported victimization data arises.  This is data that has been collected by surveying people.  It allows them to honestly report whether they have been victims of a crime and to do so in an anonymous way.  Therefore, these reports are arguably more comprehensive and more truly representative of reality than official data are.  However, self-reported data are only accurate if the people who are surveyed are honest and if they have a good concept of what a crime really is.  If they choose not to tell the truth, or if their definition of a crime is different from the official definition, the data can be less than accurate.

Thus, each of these types of data has both strengths and weaknesses.

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