National Crime Victimization Survey

In addition to the Uniform Crime Reports, a second major source of data about crime comes from the NCVS. Once called the National Crime Survey, the NCVS has been conducted annually since 1972 by the Bureau of the Census for the U.S. Department ofJustice’s BJS.

Although it underwent a redesign in 1992, the basic design of the survey has remained constant through its almost four decades of existence. Essentially, the NCVS is a self-report survey in which interviewed persons are asked about the number and characteristics of victimizations experienced during the prior six months. Survey respondents provide information about themselves (e.g., age, sex, race and Hispanic origin, marital status, education level, and income) and whether they experienced a victimization. Information is collected for each victimization incident, about the offender (e.g., age, race and Hispanic origin, sex, and victim-offender relationship), characteristics of the crime (including time and place of occurrence, use of weapons, nature of injury, and economic consequences), whether the crime was reported to police, reasons the crime was or was not reported, and experiences with the criminal justice system.

The NCVS is administered to persons age 12 or older from a nationally representative sample of households in the United States. The NCVS defines a household as a group of members who all reside at a sampled address. Persons are considered household members when the sampled address is their usual place of residence at the time of the interview and when they have no other usual place of residence. Once selected, households remain in the sample for three years, and eligible persons in these households are interviewed every six months either in person or over the phone, for a total of seven interviews.

Generally, all first interviews are conducted in person. New households rotate into the sample on an ongoing basis to replace outgoing households that have been in sample for the three-year period. The sample includes persons living in group quarters, such as dormitories, rooming houses, and religious group dwellings, and excludes persons living in military barracks and institutional settings, such as correctional or hospital facilities, and the homeless.

To gather data for the annual report entitled “Crime Victimization in the United States,” the Bureau of the Census conducts interviews with a national sample of approximately 160,000 people in 90,000 households. The major focus in the set of questions asked adults (i.e., individuals over 12 years of age) is whether they have been victims of crime within the past six months. When it has been determined that an individual in the survey has been victimized, further questions are asked about the victimization.

Although the UCR Program is primarily oriented toward criminals and their crimes, the NCVS focuses mainly on the victims and their victimization. The NCVS includes both reported and unreported crimes. By concentrating on victims and learning more about unreported crimes, the NCVS complements the UCR Program by giving a more complete picture of the extent of crime in the United States.

In the survey, household residents are asked whether they have been a victim in the previous six months of several different kinds of personal crimes. These crimes include robbery, rape, sexual assault, aggravated and simple assault, and personal theft, such as pickpocketing and purse snatching; the NCVS groups these offenses together and calls them “personal crimes” (Barkan and Bryjak, 2004). One household member is also asked whether the family has been victim to a household burglary, other household theft, or motor vehicle theft; the NCVS calls these “property crimes.”

If respondents have experienced personal crimes, they are then asked several questions about the offense, including whether and how they were threatened or hurt; the time and place of victimization; whether a weapon was involved and, if so, what type of weapon; how well they knew the offender before the victimization; and whether they reported the offense to the police and, if not, why not. When respondents report a household victimization, they are asked further questions about it, including the value of the item(s) stolen and whether someone was at home at the time the theft occurred.

Since the NCVS is a random sample of the entire nation, its results can be generalized to the rest of the U.S. population. So, for example, if 1% of the sample reports that their automobile was stolen, we can be fairly sure that about 1% of all U.S. families have experienced a motor vehicle theft. This is important because it allows us to estimate the actual number of victimizations in the United States. It also allows us to estimate the rate of victimization per 1000 individuals age 12 and older for personal crimes and per 1000 households for property crimes. For instance, if 1% of households report a stolen car, then we can say that the rate of car thefts is 10 per 1000 households.

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