Victimologists gather and interpret data in order to answer questions that need to be addressed. Victimologists are interested in when and where the majority of crimes occur, as well as details including whether and what types of weapons were used. Another important task is to identify which groups are victimized the most and the least often. Victimologists want to know whether individuals tend to be attacked by complete strangers or persons they know, how the intended targets act when confronted by assailants, what proportion try to fight back or escape, how many get injured, what proportion need to be hospitalized, and how much time and money they lose.
The answers to basic questions like these, when taken together, constitute the “big picture,” an overview of what is really happening. Many people’s impressions regarding crime are shaped by their own personal experiences, stereotypes, media (including news sources as well as pop culture), and information provided by organizations with specific agendas. Examining the “big picture” can serve as an antidote to impressions based on unreliable information.
Until the 1970s, few efforts were made to routinely monitor and systematically measure various indicators of the victim’s plight. By the 1980s, social scientists and agencies were conducting the research needed to bring the big picture into focus. By the 1990s, all sorts of special interest groups began keeping count and disseminating their own estimates about the suffering of a wide variety of victims. These statistics are extremely important in considering the amount of crime and victimization that occurs.
Statistics are meaningful numbers that reveal important information and are of crucial importance to social scientists, policy analysts, and decision makers. Cynics point out statistics can be misused by special interest groups to support their causes. Statistics may be cited to prove existing laws and policies are having the intended effect, or, conversely, to persuade people the old methods are not working and new approaches are necessary. Officials, agencies, and organizations with their own particular agendas may release certain statistics to influence decision makers or the public. For example, one group might publish alarming numbers about crime to support a demand for more crime-fighting resources, while another group might circulate more moderate numbers to make the case that those in charge are doing their jobs well.
By studying crime statistics, criminologists and victimologists can discover such important findings as:
- the rates at which certain crimes occur
- trends relating to the frequency and location of crimes
- identifying groups that tend to be arrested (or be victims of) certain types of crime
- the impact of laws, correctional programs, or law enforcement efforts on crime
The US Department of Justice annually publishes two different reports containing statistical data: the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). Both of these sets of data are from the federal government and are reasonably accurate and trustworthy.
Each of these government data-collection systems has its own strengths and weaknesses in terms of providing the kinds of information victimologists are seeking to answer their key questions. The UCR contains data based on crimes reported by police agencies. One of the criticisms of this report is it cannot include any data related to crimes not reported to the police. There are numerous reasons why a victim might not report a crime, so the UCR only paints part of the true picture. The NCVS, however, includes data obtained via surveys conducted in the general population. By using this method, the NCVS includes crimes not represented by the UCR. For example, a rape victim who did not report the rape to the police might report it on the NCVS survey. Similarly, an assault victim fearful of further harm might be afraid to file a complaint with the police, but might provide the information in the survey. In these examples, the UCR will not reflect these crimes.
The UCR’s accuracy is impacted by the use of the “hierarchy rule,” which means if a particular incident involves several crimes, only the most severe is counted. Since 1991, states have been transitioning to a new, more comprehensive reporting system, known as the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). The NIBRS will eliminate the hierarchy rule and will capture much more information about each reported incident. As of 2006, twenty-nine states had converted to this method of reporting.
Numbers must always be carefully scrutinized and placed within some context, or put into perspective. Sometimes the same numbers can be interpreted quite differently depending on the spin they are given. For example, data in the UCR is illustrated by a “crime clock,” which dramatizes the fact crime continues to occur as time passes. It could be argued the alarming figures derived from the crime clock actually underestimate how dangerous the country truly is, since the FBI’s calculations are based solely on crimes known to police, and real victimization is actually much higher than these numbers would lead one to believe. However, the NCJS expresses its data in a way that shows victims to be small in number compared to the vast majority who were not victims.
Victimologists look at both raw numbers and rates. Raw numbers reveal the actual number of victims. On the other hand, rates are expressed as fractions or ratios that project the odds, chances, or risks of victimization in a year. The NCVS yields estimates of the number of people who endure certain crimes each year. An example of a raw number would be “just about 17,000 people were murdered in the United States in 2006,” while an example of a rate would be “fewer than 6 out of every 100,000 residents of the U.S. were murdered in 2006.”
It is also possible to look back over more than a century to note how the homicide rate has surged and ebbed in America during various historical periods. For example, the murder rate soared at the beginning of the 20 th century, peaking in 1933. The number of violent deaths plummeted after Prohibition and, during the years of World War II, when many young men were drafted to fight overseas, only 5 slayings took place for every 100,000 inhabitants. Interpersonal crime continued to decline in the 1950s, reaching a low of about 4.5 slayings for every 100,000 people by 1958. The homicide rate doubled in the early 1960s to the middle of the 1970s with the level of legal violence reaching an all-time high in 1980, when the homicide rate hit 10.2 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants.
Both sources of data confirm Americans suffer from property crimes much more frequently than from violent crimes. Every year, theft is the most common crime of all. Burglaries are the second most common form of victimization, and motor vehicle thefts rank third.