By Laura Evans
For the past 50 years, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) has been the main source of information on criminal victimization in the United States. The NCVS is sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the primary statistical agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. It captures information on nonfatal crimes reported to police and those that are not reported.
Designed as a complement to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, the NCVS gathers data by interviewing selected people age 12 or older in U.S. households. Through these interviews, the survey provides statistics on crime, including the number and type of criminal victimizations that occur, and who experiences them. The NCVS is unique in that it also collects details on various aspects of a crime, including engagement with law enforcement, victim support services, and the outcomes of a victimization incident.
In this article, current and former BJS leaders who have been instrumental in overseeing the NCVS share their insights about its importance.
The Need for the NCVS
NCVS data serve a wide range of purposes and provide reliable statistics to inform various research, policy, and programmatic objectives. The information captured from survey respondents can be used to establish criminal justice policies and programs, inform the public about crime, and study crime’s impact on individuals and society. Since the first year of NCVS data collection in 1973, the survey has been cited more than 35,000 times in state and federal legislation, in state and federal court cases, in academic literature, and in the media. The NCVS is invaluable to students, lawmakers, policymakers, researchers, victim service providers, advocates, and society as a whole.
Michael Rand, chief of BJS’s Victimization Statistics Unit (VSU) from 1995 to 2011, says “Designing effective programs to address crime requires the kinds of information about when and where crime occurs, offender characteristics, the circumstances surrounding crime victimization, and the impact of crime on its victims that can be collected through victimization surveys.” He also notes that “Such information is not generally available from other criminal justice statistical programs but is routinely collected by the NCVS.”
According to Dr. Charles Kindermann, who was responsible for the victimization survey program at BJS from 1975 to 1995, “The NCVS was conceived to identify underreporting of crime in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, but the design accomplished much more. Information was collected on the characteristics of victims, offenders, and crimes that enabled researchers to conduct studies on a range of topics that led to improvements in the administration of criminal justice.”
Former VSU Chief (2012–2016) and Deputy Director of Statistical Operations (2016–2017) Dr. Michael Planty believes that the NCVS is a valuable tool for many stakeholders and practitioners. He notes, “Sexual violence, domestic violence, school-based violence, and other financial crimes are often not captured in police records, resulting in severe under-estimation of these problems.” Researchers use the NCVS to study victimization risk, who is most at risk by crime type, and help-seeking behaviors, Planty says.
Survey Design Innovations
The NCVS first began with a core survey. Over the course of its history, it has expanded and adapted to innovate and address emerging data needs. Changes over time include adding new topics to the survey, introducing targeted survey supplements on specific crime types, and developing a research program to produce estimates for specific areas of the country in addition to national-level estimates.
Planty observes that as the NCVS subnational estimates are cultivated, states and cities can begin to better understand the total scope of their crime problem and how jurisdictions compare. “More advanced analysis could leverage the NCVS to examine the impact of programs and policies that differ over time and across places. For example, researchers could examine how a police-community relations program in a particular city could lead to an increase in trust in police and subsequently an increase in reporting crime to the police,” he says.
These types of valuable insights can only be generated with victimization surveys, he adds.
Crime Victim Assistance
In addition to illustrating the nature of crime in the United States, expanding the availability of data on how often people who experience crime access assistance and resources to help them navigate their victimization has been a key focal area of the NCVS. Victims of crime and the organizations that aim to assist them can greatly benefit from NCVS data.
Dr. Lynn Langton, VSU chief from 2016 to 2018, states “Victim service providers and the entities that administer victim compensation use data from the NCVS to understand the nature of victimization and the types of services that are needed to address the harms of victimization. Additionally, the NCVS reveals gaps and disparities in who receives different types of assistance following a crime.”
Service providers can also use NCVS data to expand the accessibility and reach of their services. By examining these data, they can determine how to best advocate for increased funding and resources to provide services to more victims, Langton points out.
Modernizing the NCVS
As a living program, the NCVS continues to evolve. Its commitment to remain relevant despite changes in society and in the criminal justice landscape is a key strength of the survey.
Heather Brotsos, BJS’s deputy director of Statistical Operations and former chief of the VSU (2019–2023), shares that the NCVS is in the midst of a redesign to improve the efficiency, reliability, and utility of the survey. “Additionally, the NCVS will incorporate two new periodic modules to measure opinions about police performance and indicators of public perceptions of community across the country,” she says.
Langton notes, “The redesign will be hugely valuable for modernizing the NCVS and increasing the relevance of the data.” She adds, “Most people who are surveyed have not experienced a victimization, but they can still provide important insight into issues like fear of crime and trust in law enforcement. Capturing these perspectives, among the other redesign changes, will greatly increase the utility of the data.”
Rand continues to follow the evolution of the NCVS and its most recent redesign effort. “I believe this change and growth will continue, because the survey continues to prove a valuable tool to understand crime victimization as crime remains a significant issue in our society,” he says.
The Crucial Role of NCVS Participants
As the NCVS turns 50, BJS proudly reflects on its past and optimistically looks to its future. BJS recognizes not only the value of this survey in providing an understanding of crime in the nation, but also the contributions of the survey participants who make this data collection possible.
“While we focus on the statistics at BJS, we also need to recognize the individual people that make up these numbers,” Brotsos states. “I am so grateful to every person who has ever responded to the NCVS. When we interview respondents, we are asking people to tell us about one of the worst days in their lives. To each person who has shared your story, thank you.”
Celebrating the NCVS
BJS is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the NCVS on September 27, 2023. The celebration will consist of a morning session in the Great Hall at the U.S. Department of Justice and an afternoon session in the Main Conference Room at the Office of Justice Programs. Both sessions will be livestreamed. Join us to learn more about the past, present, and future use of this vital survey.