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Estimating the Financial Costs of Crime Victimization: Study Delineates Research Needs To Inform Victim Services Policies, Programs

A recent NIJ-supported study offers a rich menu of research recommendations to advance crime victim services by addressing victimization cost information needs.
Date Published
March 4, 2021

Crime victimization is a vast social harm. Its full cost to individuals and communities is still unknown, but the ultimate financial tally is estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars — up to 6% of the gross domestic product.[1]

Criminal justice system policymakers and practitioners could benefit from more complete and precise crime victimization cost data and tools. Better data and methods could drive more equitable crime victim support, including direct victim compensation and other victim services.

To that end, a research team led by the Justice Research and Statistics Association (JRSA) identified in detail research needs for better data that would be helpful to victim services professionals. JRSA partnered with the Urban Institute and the National Center for Victims of Crime on the study, sponsored by the National Institute of Justice. The study’s objectives were:

  • Understanding what information is needed most by those who serve victims of crime.
  • Examining ways to quantify crimes committed by institutions — such as businesses and non-profits — while recognizing that it is often individuals who ultimately suffer.

Keeping the focus of prospective research squarely on the victim is key, the team’s report emphasized.

Some of the JRSA study’s recommendations for future victimization cost research, presented in more detail in the research report, were:

  • Comprehensively summarizing existing research and resources.
  • Studying repeat and series victimization. (Series victimization is defined by the Bureau of Justice Statistics as six or more similar but separate crimes that the victim is unable to recall individually or describe in detail).
  • Studying hard-to-reach victim subpopulations.
  • Developing conventions to measure uncertainty in victimization cost estimates.

The recommendations are quite technical, the report noted, but their purpose is to help practitioners have more confidence in cost estimates; help them use cost estimates to answer policy and practice questions; and help them describe cost estimates to others.

JRSA’s victimization cost study lays a foundation for new NIJ-sponsored research on tools to enhance support for victims of crime. (See NIJ-Sponsored Research on Tools to Enhance Support for Victims of Crime).

The JRSA study consisted of three parts: identification of data collection needs to inform victimization cost estimates; a survey of literature on victimization cost estimation; and research recommendations.

This article focuses on the first and third elements of the study — data collection and research recommendations. Both the data collection and the second study element, the survey of literature, informed the research recommendations, the researchers reported. 

Data Collection Focus Groups

Researchers collected data using three focus groups of practitioners as well as surveys of a larger group of crime victim services providers and a smaller group of victims. The three practitioner groups, and key reported takeaways from their respective focus groups, were:

Key Takeaways from Practitioner Groups
Practitioner Group in Focus Group Select Findings From Focus Group
Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) Compensation and assistance administrators
  • Victimization cost estimates assist administrators when they report on spending and inform policymakers with respect to establishing state caps on allowable costs to be compensated.
  • VOCA program expenses vary widely, with some programs operating under statutes that reimburse transportation to and from VOCA services, respite care, other services, and relocation assistance.
Civil-Law Attorneys for Victims of Crime
  • Damages in civil tort lawsuits brought on behalf of crime victims are both economic — e.g., medical expenses — and non-economic — e.g., pain and suffering.
  • Barriers to adequate litigation awards include the absence of a viable defendant with assets to cover damages, caps on awards, and institutional biases based on factors such as socioeconomic status.
State Administering Agency and State Analysis Center Directors
  • Victimization cost estimates are used for purposes including explaining the benefits of victimization programs, supporting expansion/funding of services, and responding to legislative requests.
  • Challenges facing the directors included a lack of up-to-date victimization figures and the difficulty of explaining the difference between tangible and intangible costs to policymakers.

Surveys of Program Administrators and Victims

The national survey of victim program administrators yielded a finding that the harms most frequently reported by victims were intangible harms, such as emotional suffering, fear of crime or revictimization, and social problems. The survey of victims similarly found that the most common harm associated with victimization is emotional suffering, such as anxiety or stress.

Research Recommendations

The JRSA team made research recommendations in two broad categories, topical studies and methodological studies, while identifying needed practitioner tools. This section samples key recommendations from the report. The recommendations relate to cost estimates by type of victimization (for example, polyvictimization), cost estimates for underrepresented victim populations, study methods, and practitioner tools.

Topical Study Recommendations

Repeat/Series and Polyvictimization

Knowledge Gap: Cost estimates for repeat and series victimization experiences.

Short-Term Recommendation: Summarize existing research and data sources.

  • Develop a comprehensive summary, including a bibliography or literature database.
  • Create a conceptual model for disaggregating harms from repeat/series victimizations or polyvictimizations.

Long-Term Recommendations: Conduct specific longitudinal studies that examine experiences of repeat and series victimizations.

  • Focus on differences in frequencies and experiences of harm between:
    • Diverse populations of survivors and potential victims.
    • Individuals from varying backgrounds.
  • Apply conceptual framework disaggregating harms to specific research questions, such as:
    • What are the lifetime costs of domestic violence for a victim?
    • What are the impacts of sexual or intimate partner victimization experiences in childhood, adulthood, and as an older adult?

Underrepresented and Hard-To-Reach Subpopulations

Knowledge Gap: Hard-to-reach subpopulations may be both disproportionately victimized and underrepresented in cost estimates. Those groups would include:

  • Public housing residents
  • People with disabilities or dementia
  • Homeless individuals
  • Tribal communities
  • LGBTQ communities
  • Institutionalized populations
  • People with immigrant status

Short-Term Recommendation: Synthesize existing information on costs, capitalizing on existing studies of subpopulations.

Long-term recommendations:

  • Modify sampling procedures, wherever possible, in future data collections to include hard-to-reach subpopulations.
  • Conduct targeted studies comprising comprehensive surveys and interviews.
  • Compare victimization impacts across different hard-to-reach subpopulations.
  • Examine service data on hard-to-reach subpopulations from victim services providers nationwide.

Methodological Study Recommendations

The recommendations are quite technical, the report noted, but their purpose is to help practitioners have more confidence in cost estimates; help them use cost estimates to answer policy and practice questions; and help them describe cost estimates to others.

The two categories of methodological recommendations, and key recommendations related to each, are:

Sampling Errors and Confidence Intervals

  • Develop conventions for quantifying, describing, and reporting uncertainty in victimization cost estimates and cost benefit analyses of crime prevention programs.
  • Develop improved methods for assessing and describing uncertainty.

Understanding Non-Sampling Error or Variability, and Sensitivity

  • Develop research on sensitivity of estimates to assumptions and minor methodological choices.
  • Develop research on the sensitivity of cost-of-victimization estimates to changes in:
    • Methods used
    • Implicit and explicit assumptions
    • Sampling procedures
    • Definitions used, question wording, etc.

Practitioner Tools

The JRSA research team also recommended development of new research. They include:

  • Development of standard definitions for costs to use across studies and estimation methods.
  • Establishment of timeframes to use in producing cost estimates.
  • Creation of calculator tools for field use in estimating victimization costs.

The recommendations, taken together, represent a menu of options for advancing the field through enhanced victimization cost estimates usable for a number of policy purposes, according to the report.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2016-V3-GX-K005, awarded to the Justice Research and Statistics Association. The article is based on the report “Estimating the Financial Costs of Crime Victimization, Executive Summary” (2019), Kristina Lugo and Roger Przybylski.

NIJ’S 2020 Research and Evaluation of Victims of Crime solicitation called for additional studies focused on research priorities identified in the JRSA report. The solicitation noted NIJ’s particular interest in:

  • Underrepresented and hard-to-reach subpopulations.
  • Underrepresented, hard to classify, and emerging crime types.
  • Methodological studies to improve the accurate generation and interpretation of victimization cost estimates.

One project already funded through a 2020 NIJ grant is the National Opinion Research Center’s (NORC) research on new procedures for modeling victim harms, redefining key elements of victim financial modeling, and applying those models. The study, using data from a range of criminal justice, health, and human services domains, as well as survey data, is designed to break out patterns of harm by personal attributes. The objective is to create new estimates of the financial costs of victimization. See the award detail.

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Date Published: March 4, 2021