Victim Costs and Consequences: A New Look

Reviewed by
Priscilla Schulz, LCSW

from an article of the same title by:

Ted R. Miller, Mark A. Cohen, and Brian Wiersema

U. S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice Research, February 1996

What is the goal of this study?
This study:
takes a comprehensive look at both the incidence of crime and victim costs;
summarizes best estimates currently available from established sources;
provides new data where major gaps exist.
What are the study's primary questions?
What are the costs and consequences of personal crime for Americans?

More specifically,
  • When all categories of crimes, incidence and prevalence rates, and all kinds of victims (e.g., children, the homeless) are considered, what are the real tangible and intangible costs of crime?
  • How do you accurately assess incidence and prevalence rates of crimes?
  • How do you quantify intangible costs of crime (e.g., the cost of victim pain and suffering)?
  • What accounts for differences in crime statistics gathered by various government and private organizations?
Why is this study important?
  1. Crime statistics inform public policy. For example, decisions about whether to spend money on prisons, crime prevention or victim services stem from cost-benefit analyses and costs of crime data.
  2. Proper allocation of funds for crime prevention, intervention, punishment, victim's services, and compensation requires an accurate characterization of crimes and their real costs to victims and society.
  3. Accurate measures of crime and costs contribute to assessing effectiveness of crime response programs.

A paucity of data exists on criminal victimization of children and on the costs of such crimes.

Prevalence vs. incidence of crime: what's the difference and why does it matter?
Prevalence rates refer to numbers of people who have experienced crime. But sometimes an individual is victimized repeatedly, as in the case of domestic violence and child abuse. Prevalence rates alone can underestimate crime occurrence and the severity of a crime's effect on and costs to an individual.

Incidence rates are counts of victimization, and therefore more accurately reflect amount of crime. Ten rapes or beatings of a spouse are ten crime occurrences even though the victim is the same person. Earlier studies equated the number of victims with the number of crimes, underestimating the actual number of crimes and throwing off cost estimates accordingly.

Assessing incidence of crime: how did this study deal with it and what were the problems?
The present study focused on crime data from nationally representative surveys in which crime definitions were clearly reported. For certain categories where available statistics were compromised by data collection methods, this study's researchers:

  1. Used statistical techniques such as capture-recapture modeling that estimates numbers of victims unknown to original sources from victim numbers detected by various other sources
  2. Computed reasonable estimations. For example, because National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) figures for assaults counted only assaults for persons 12 and older, this study calculated nondomestic assaults of children under 12 by multiplying the NCVS assault count for 12-17 year olds by a ratio composed of the number of medically treated nondomestic assaults of 0-11 year olds over the number of similarly treated nondomestic assaults of 12-17 year olds using health care system data.

    The cost of crime is typically underestimated due to problems in data collection. For example:
  3. National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS):
      • NCVS does not collect information about all crime categories. Specifically, NCVS excludes child abuse and neglect, drug abuse, murder, arson, drunk driving and crimes against children under 12.
      • Before 1992, NCVS did not directly ask about rape, but left it to the victim to mention and define it.
      • NCVS surveys traditional households and in so doing omits gathering data on the homeless and those not attached to traditional households.
      • NCVS reports exclude repeated (also called "series") victimizations.
      • NCVS disregards long-term losses to victims.
  4. FBI Uniform Crime Reports (UCR):
      • UCR collects data from police reports and therefore only counts crimes reported or known to the police; many crimes are never reported to the police.
      • UCR excludes negligent manslaughter cases.
  5. Vital Statistics:
      • Vital Statistics reports incidence of drunk driving fatalities (primarily negligent manslaughter cases) but excludes deaths of unknown intent some of which may have been homicides or child abuse deaths wrongly attributed to other causes.
      • Vital Statistics data excludes deaths of victims whose bodies are not recovered.
  6. National Incidence and Prevalence Survey of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS):
      • Because NIS samples Child Protective Services and government agencies, its count reflects only serious and substantiated cases of abuse.
  7. National Family Violence Surveys (Gelles and Straus, 1985, 1976):
      • Gelles and Straus use probability sampling techniques and self-report which are difficult to validate.
      • Gelles and Straus' estimates of child abuse incidence exceeded NIS' and are attributed to differences in the samples used by Gelles and Straus.
  8. National Women's Study (NWS):
      • NWS provides prevalence data (numbers of victims) rather than crime incidence data (numbers of victimizations).
      • NWS surveys only women and so male rape prevalence must be extrapolated from already accepted female to male rape ratios.
      • NWS surveyed only people 18 and older, leaving rates of childhood rape to retrospective reports.
What are victim costs and consequences according to this study? The findings:

Aggregate annual victim costs are computed by considering medical costs, other tangible/out-of-pocket expenses and the value of intangible quality-of-life losses of crime victims. When these costs are considered along with incidence of crimes and repeated victimizations, the following list rank-orders the top five crimes in the United States that have the highest, annual victim costs:
    1. Rape (excluding child sexual abuse): $127 billion/year
    2. Assault: $93 billion/year
    3. Murder (excluding arson and drunk driving deaths): $71 billion
    4. Drunk driving (including fatalities): $61 billion
    5. Child abuse (all categories): $56 billion

A) Intangible losses (i.e., lost quality of life) are the largest cost component for crimes of violence.

1. Fatalities: Lost quality of life dollar values are generally based on the amount people spend (in dollars and time) to reduce risk of death. This study adopted a monetary value of fatality of $2.7 million dollars (inflated to 1993 dollars), with the lost quality of life component being about $1.9 million, derived from a 1995 literature review and synthesis (Miller, et. al.). These figures take into account victims' life expectancies, lost wages and other tangible losses due to a crime death.

2. Nonfatal injuries: Monetary values for pain, suffering and lost quality of life in non-fatal injuries are based on crime and burn victim jury awards ignoring punitive damages. Estimates of average jury awards for the typical crime in this study is then calculated by

      • determining how jury awards are functions of out-of-pocket crime costs, victims characteristics and severity of injury,
      • then applying these functions to the actual crimes and victims in the study.

B) Tangible losses: Historically, the cost of crime was understood solely in terms of direct costs to victims or to the criminal justice system. Whereas tangible costs are substantial, they do not fully represent the impact of crimes on victims.

  1. Property damage and loss: Property damage and loss is calculated as the largest tangible expense to U. S. crime victims as a result of property/household crimes such as burglary, larceny and arson. However, the cost of property damage and loss is often less than 1% of the real cost to victims of violent crimes.
  2. Productivity loss (lost wages, lost productivity at work, home or school, related costs to employers of victims): Productivity losses are calculated as the second largest tangible cost of all crimes. The study expanded upon NCVS data to include loss due to crime-induced, long-term disability. An age-related difference in recuperative abilities was not assessed.
  3. Medical care: Medical costs are a substantial cost to victims. The study expanded upon NCVS estimates to include lifetime medical costs and legal costs to recover medical costs from perpetrators or insurance companies. Inference of the medical costs associated with homicide and child abuse were made by:
      • Using equivalent legal precedence (i.e., fatal injuries in workmen's compensation settlements)
      • Making cost estimates based on child abuse victims' actual length of hospital stay and diagnosis.
  4. Mental health costs: Because of a lack of data, this study conducted its own research from which it estimated that between 10-20% of the U. S. mental health care bill pays to treat victims of violence. The average murder puts 1.5 to 2.5 persons into counseling, and mental health care costs are the largest tangible costs of rape and child abuse victims.
  5. Victim services: Values assessed by the study are deemed underestimates because data was based on federally funded victim service programs and therefore does not include the value of volunteers and private, non-federally-funded programs. More research is recommended.

Police and fire services: Virtually all murder and arson cases involve the police; less than half of all other crimes involves these services. Overall, police and fire service costs are a relatively small portion of the total cost of crime, but in any one municipality, they may be significant.

What is the effect of ignoring intangible costs of crime when making public policy?
The study sites an example of this error from Cohen, et al (1988). An early release from prison program in a community was calculated to cost less in terms of the costs of crime committed by the early release recidivists than the cost to build more prison space, when only tangible costs were included. Later, when the value of the community's pain, suffering and lost quality of life were considered, the costs of the early release program exceeded the cost of making prison space.

Why are crime costs per victim assessed higher in this study than in other national crime cost surveys?
This study's estimates of cost are higher because it added data where data were missing, undervalued or ignored by other studies. For example:

  1. Costs per victim are greater when the repetitive nature of certain crimes is considered. In some classes of crime, such as rape and domestic violence, victims can suffer repeatedly, so costs per victim are greater than costs per crime occurrence.
  2. This study estimated long-term costs to victims by various methods.

Other studies discounted victims' responses when they were unsure of their real out-of-pocket expenses for a crime. This study assigned such cases the mean cost among other, similar cases with known costs.

What are some additional findings of the study?

  1. Currently there is no standardized method of measuring the impact of crime, nor are crimes well defined by reporting agencies.
  2. Little is known about the true extent and consequences of violence against, or abuse and neglect, of children. The present study makes reasonable estimates based on and extrapolating from existing data.
  3. Cost is a promising way to unify the variables for measuring the real impact of crime. Research is needed to answer this question: In monetary terms, how do domestic violence and child maltreatment affect the long-term productivity of the victims?
  4. There is a lack of accurate personal data on murder victims. This interferes with monetary assessment of loss.
  5. Institutional awareness, participation and interagency collaboration are needed to continue to collect data that will contribute to accurate, future assessments of crime costs.
  6. Data on proven violence prevention programs are absent at this point in the debate over crime costs.

Reviewed by: Priscilla Schulz, LCSW, August 1999
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