Is the violent crime rate rising? Recent reports in Virginia and nationwide came to widely different results.

In a report released earlier this year, Virginia State Police said the number of violent crimes fell 2% in 2018. For the purposes of the report, violent crimes were defined as homicide, forcible sex offenses, robbery and aggravated assault. Homicides alone fell 14%. States vary widely in how they compile and report crime statistics, but many other states have reported similar drops.

However, a recent survey released by the U.S. Department of Justice points to a different conclusion. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey 2018 interviewed about 240,000 people, asking if they had been the victims of violent crime. The number of people answering in the affirmative was much higher than official crime reports would suggest. The discrepancy was so big that researchers said they believe less than half of all violent crimes are reported to the police.

The biggest difference researchers found was in the number of people reporting they had been the victims of sexual assault. The number in the 2018 report was nearly double the number from a year earlier, 1.4 per 1,000 respondents in 2017 and 2.7 in 2018. Researchers believe recent media attention on sexual harassment and sexual assault led people to feel free to disclose their experiences in a way they had not before.

Our criminal justice system is built on the idea that a jury of ordinary citizens can hear the evidence and arguments in a case and dispassionately, without bias, come to a unanimous decision that the accused is guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt. Unfortunately, juries can be influenced by a lot of other factors outside the courtroom. For instance, when people believe that the violent crime rate is rising, they may be more likely to return guilty verdicts against people who are accused of violent crimes. It’s important for the accused to have a skilled lawyer who can defend their rights and speak persuasively to a jury.