When most of us think of criminals, we often imagine faceless individuals unlike ourselves, a vague group committing destructive acts against society, and often not facing justice for their actions. But we don’t usually think of criminals as the everyday people around us. While we may have trouble imagining our family, friends, co-workers – and even ourselves – falling under this category, breaking the law is far more common than you might expect.
Official statistics and reports on criminal acts and potential victims show only a part of the whole picture. So we decided to survey more than 2,000 Americans about their criminal rap sheets and the crimes they’ve committed. Which nefarious acts are more common than we think – and who’s behind them? Keep reading to find out.
Admissions of Guilt: The Most Frequently Committed Crimes
The first thing we did was ask respondents whether they committed several crimes at least once, and found the most frequently committed crimes ranged from the everyday to the outright dangerous. By far, the most common offense was the violation of a traffic law, a category which encompasses a variety of offenses, such as speeding, running a red light, or following another car too closely. In fact, 86 percent of respondents said they have broken traffic safety laws. This widespread disregard of driver safety has been noted elsewhere, with one researcher even saying: “We’re all criminals.”
Illegally downloading music, videos, or software – the second most frequently committed crime – was committed by 76 percent of participants. Studies show that only a slim majority of Americans (52 percent) believe there should be any penalty for online piracy. A similar proportion of our sample (75 percent) admitted to littering in spite of strong social taboos against doing so.
Additionally, about 6 in 10 respondents admitted to public intoxication, while 56 percent confessed to trespassing on private property. Illicit substance possession or use was also something about half of our sample committed at least once: Fifty-two percent have possessed or used illegal drugs, and the same percentage has taken someone else’s prescription medication. This figure aligns with a 2015 national study, which found that nearly half of people aged 12 and over have engaged in illicit drug use at least once in their lifetime.
Interestingly, almost as many of our respondents – 51 percent – admitted to throwing away trash in someone else’s dumpster. And although driving under the influence only ranked 10th on our list, the prevalence of this extremely dangerous choice may shock you: Forty percent of respondents have driven while intoxicated at least once, a decision that is responsible for 28 deaths in the U.S. every day.
Top Admissions of Crimes, by Gender
Women are more likely to take someone else’s prescription medication. Additionally, they’re more likely than men to steal cutlery or something else from a restaurant, threaten or physically attack a family member or spouse, and knowingly write a bad check.
The biggest surprise may be how many women admitted to threatening their families. In fact, up to 29 percent of straight American men have experienced physical violence by a partner, and up to 48 percent have been subjected to emotional or psychological abuse.
However, men were far more likely to urinate in public, illegally bet, drive recklessly, and engage in disorderly conduct. They were also more likely to physically attack a stranger.
According to our research, respondents in the West were at least 10 percent more likely to solicit sex than any other region. Those in the South, however, were more likely to commit domestic abuse (a finding that aligns with a list of the riskiest states for domestic violence) and have sex in public. And those in the Midwest were most likely to give alcohol to minors.
Committing the Top 10 Major Crimes
As previously mentioned, 40 percent of respondents have driven under the influence at least once, making this the most common major offense. Only slightly less, 37 percent have driven recklessly. Many of the most frequent major crimes were overt offenses against others, often violent: Twenty-seven percent have threatened to hit a person but have not actually done so, 18 percent have stolen someone’s personal property, and 17 percent have physically attacked another person.
Indirect involvement in crime was surprisingly prevalent as well – 23 percent were aware of another person’s plans to commit a crime but did not report it to police, while 13 percent assisted in committing a crime in some way. Even the 10th most frequent major crime, writing a bad check, was committed by 1 in 10 people.
Religion, Politics, Sexuality, and Crime
Though religious belief is believed to have obvious implications for personal morality and ethical behavior, we found minimal differences between crimes committed by people of faith and those with no religious affiliation. Catholics reported the greatest number of minor crimes (38 percent), while Protestants reported the lowest rate (33 percent). And while Catholics also acknowledged committing the most major crimes (13 percent), Buddhists were the least likely to have committed a major crime (7 percent).
Even less of a difference was observed among participants of different political affiliations. Thirty-eight percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans have committed a minor crime, while 11 percent of Republicans and 10 percent of Democrats has admitted to a major crime.
Individuals of different sexual orientations also showed a slight gap in admissions of criminal behavior, with bisexual respondents most likely to admit to minor (41 percent) and major (13 percent) crimes, and gay respondents least likely to commit either. Thirty-six percent of gay participants committed a minor crime, while only 9 percent committed a major offense.
Crimes That Shouldn’t be Crimes
As we’ve seen so far, regard for the law among the general population is clearly mixed. If so many people don’t feel compelled to obey laws, which acts do they feel shouldn’t be considered crimes? Seventy-eight percent of participants felt that dumpster diving shouldn’t be against the law, followed by betting and doing repairs or renovations without a permit (both at 74 percent), and finally, 70 percent of people felt it shouldn’t be illegal to pay for sex.
Crimes That Shouldn’t be Crimes, by Gender
Some notable differences were seen between men and women as well. Surprisingly, 65 percent of women said it shouldn't be illegal to have sex for money compared with 74 percent of men. Seventy-three percent of women said using someone else’s dumpster should be allowed, compared with only 63 percent of men, and interestingly, 70 percent of women said peeing in public shouldn’t be illegal while only 62 percent of men said the same.
How Many of Us Know Someone With a Record?
A surprising proportion of our sample readily admitted to committing major and minor crimes – so how likely is it for respondents to know someone who has committed a criminal offense as well? It turns out, men (71 percent) were slightly more likely than women (65 percent) to know someone who has committed a crime, as well as anyone who has committed a major crime (12 percent of men and 9 percent of women). And of all religious groups studied, those with no religion were the most likely (72 percent) to know someone with a criminal record, while adherents of Judaism were the least likely (58 percent). However, both Jews and Christians (14 percent each) were the most likely to know a major criminal, while Buddhists were the least likely.