The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) is a national survey of up to 77,400 households in the United States. It takes place twice per year, and it is administered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The information this effort collects involves the frequency of victimization, its consequences, and the characteristics of what happens.
The survey focuses on gathering data on crimes like rape, robbery, larceny, burglary, assault, and motor vehicle theft. Then the Bureau of Justice Statistics takes the results to build a crime index. This information gets compared to the Uniform Crime Reports and other tools to assess the safety of society.
The NCVS began in 1972 from work completed by the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, as well as the National Opinion Research Center. One of the crucial findings of this report was that numerous crimes are not reported to the police.
List of the Pros of the NCVS
1. The National Crime Victimization Survey provides data on unreported crime.
The NCVS gives us a look at what criminal activities happen outside of the police reports that get filed every six months. Many victims choose not to approach law enforcement for support in these circumstances for a variety of reasons, ranging from fear of reprisal to uncertainty about the services they’d receive. Specific crimes, especially sexually-related ones, are not reported as often, so the information in the survey gives us a clearer picture of what is happening around us every day.
2. This survey creates a wide range of victimization variables to study.
The NCVS gives us an opportunity to understand specific criminal trends that might be happening in society. It gathers information from households about their age, race, gender, and drug or alcohol abuse. It also asks about this information regarding the offender in the incident, the context of the crime, and if there is a relationship between the victim and the person who caused harm in the case.
Trying to analyze all of this information independently through each district would require a lot of hours of study. Gathering it together in the context of the NCVS allows for the data in the report to become useful immediately.
3. The National Crime Victimization Survey receives a high response rate.
Between the years of 1993 and 1998, the NCVS received a response rate as high as 96%. The lowest return it ever experienced during that time was 93%. About 90% of eligible individuals participate in the survey every time there is an effort to collect information. These results have been slowly declining over the years as the rate of crime has gone down, but it is still one of the best responses of its type in the world today given the size of the population. That means we have more access to reliable data that can be used toward making better policing decisions.
4. There is a lot of historical data to use for comparison purposes.
We often use the NCVS with the Uniform Crime Report to compare data points. This process allows us to see what is happening in society so that we can work to reduce criminal conduct. There is also the option to compare the National Crime Victimization Survey results with previous efforts since the work has been taking place over 30 years. It uses a stable sample for information collection, and the methodology is proven to work.
This advantage means that it is possible to perform trend analysis, data aggregation, and to study smaller population samples.
5. A revision in 1996 made the NCVS become more useful at the regional level.
The goal of the National Crime Victimization Survey is to estimate criminal activity at the federal level in the United States. It took over 20 years for the NCVS to begin using a regional variable so that estimates in specific parts of the country could become possible. Although this process isn’t perfect, the information can be broken into data points that enable crime estimates for the Northeast, South, Midwest, and West.
There are special releases of the information that can also provide insights into the crime that happens in major American cities.
6. The National Crime Victimization Survey uses a hierarchical format.
Unlike most of the files storing data in a rectangular format for efforts such as these, the NCVS avoids the flat formatting with fixed record lengths. It uses a hierarchical format organized into the variations of household composition and victimization incident episodes. The datasets have varying record lengths, being stored sequentially in the file so that space and size required are greatly reduced.
Identifying characteristics remain with the file, making it a simple task to identify address IDs, household records, and incident reports. The structure might seem complex, but this method makes it easier for everyone to compare data points as needed to evaluate criminal conduct and patterns.
7. It is more accurate than an annual survey.
Annual surveys that attempt to collect specific data points like the National Crime Victimization Survey have reduced accuracy because of its timing. Incidents that occurred in the past 30 days would combine with episodes that happened in the previous 11 months. Since the NCVS comes out every six months, there is more accuracy in the information when compared to what the yearly approach provides.
If the NCVS came out more often, then it would be even more accurate. There are cost considerations to examine with that option, which is why the compromise at six months occurs.
8. The National Crime Victimization Survey creates uniform tracking measures.
Even though the victimization data that the NCVS collects doesn’t cover every crime, it does provide uniform measurements for selected incidents. That process makes it easier to create tracking measures for those incidents, calculating aggregated and disaggregated crime rates for the period and the year based on the information received.
The data is accessible to the public, so there are always opportunities to review it for personal needs. By knowing what trends to expect from your region, it is easier to plan out how to protect yourself.
List of the Cons of the NCVS
1. The National Crime Victimization Survey is designed to provide national estimates.
The goal of the NCVS is to collect information about crime in the United States. That means it can provide an excellent estimate about what is happening at the national level. We can study specific population groups in the country to determine their likelihood of victimization. What is not possible with this survey is the ability to estimate crime at the local, county, or state levels. It is even challenging to look at specific sections of the country, such as the Upper Midwest, to establish specific data points.
2. It does not track crime that impacts American youth.
There is limited age coverage in the National Crime Victimization Survey because the data doesn’t include victimization incidents that occur to people under the age of 11. That means any findings from the information cannot be generalized within this group. This disadvantage means that some of the criminal activities that happen across the country don’t make it into the report, so the estimates can never be 100% accurate.
It is a tool that is reliable and provides fruitful information that helps to make us safer, but there are specific limitations that could create problematic awareness gaps.
3. The response rate to the National Crime Victimization Survey is steadily declining.
The response rate to the NCVS was above 90% for most of the 1990s, but that is no longer the case today. According to the information released from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were a total of 151,055 household interviews that took place for the 2018 surveys, representing 73% of eligible participants. The response rate from eligible persons was 82% during the year. That means we’re receiving less information than in previous efforts to collect crime data, so the results may not be as true of a reflection of what is currently happening in the United States.
4. There is limited population coverage with the NVCS sample.
Individuals must be living in a household unit or a group quarter if they are going to be eligible to take the NCVS. That means anyone who lives in a nursing home, a prison, or even military barracks are excluded from this survey. Anything that would happen to them on a vessel or within the context of their non-qualifying housing is not included in the sample, which means there is another layer of inaccuracy located in the collected data.
5. It only collects information about specific criminal conduct.
The National Crime Victimization Survey does not collect information on every possible crime that can happen in the United States. It only asks people about a few specific property and personal crimes and nothing else. The information tends to focus on specific street crimes instead of looking at murder, kidnapping, embezzlement, or even arson. It can be helpful to review the prevalence of the incidents that it does gather since one set of criminal activities can lead to future events. If you want a complete picture of what happens in a section of the country, this tool will not provide it.
6. Sampling errors can occur frequently with the National Crime Victimization Survey.
One of the primary issues with the sampling errors that happen in the NCVS is the six-month frame of reference. Some people can forget a few of the details that happened during the incident, which makes the data collected incomplete. Some victims might not report what happened to them because the offender was their spouse, child, or another close relative. Some people might experience violence so frequently that they don’t deem the incidents to be valid for reporting.
Crime classification cannot occur unless the details about each incident are made available to the survey takers. Most respondents can recall with accuracy what happened to them within three months.
7. Series victimizations might only count as a single incident.
According to the rules of the National Crime Victimization Survey, anyone who reports six or more victimizations in a similar fashion during the reference period might have all of the incidents count as just one for the report. There are some specific rules in place to prevent this from happening, such as the ability to provide details about each crime. That means the NCVS can seriously underestimate the actual rate of victimization in some situations since dozens of reports might only count for 3-4 when calculating the final rate for comparison.
8. Sample sizes for the National Crime Victimization Survey are cut for budgetary purposes.
The NCVS was considered to be fully implemented in 1993. That survey involved over 70,000 households and 136,000 individuals over the year. Since funding for the Bureau of Justice Services remained flat while the data points grew, the sample size for the survey continued to go down. A 12% cut occurred in 1996, followed by 4% in 2002, 16% in 2006, and another 14% in 2007. Since there is a lower sample size with which to work, the error rate of the sample continues to increase.
The BJS doesn’t have control over the amount of funding it receives. The money comes from Congress, so there is always a level of uncertainty regarding the amount that will come in for the work each year.
9. Telescoping can be a problem with the NCVS.
Telescoping in a survey like the NCVS occurs when a respondent includes information that is older than the evaluation period. If someone were asked to describe their victimization and the event happened eight months ago, then the information in the survey will not be as accurate. Workers attempt to “bound” the information provided by the sample with previous interviews to delete duplicate incidents, but there are still issues that can occur.
This disadvantage can also happen because of the presence of proxy interviews. If someone is 12 or 13 years old and knowledgeable household members insist that they not be interviewed directly, then the information collected may not be entirely accurate. If someone is away from home or incapable of responding, then this issue may also occur.
The National Crime Victimization Survey gets administered each year to people who are 12 years old or more through a nationally representative sample of households. Once a family or individual receives selection into this process, they stay in the sample for 3.5 years. Eligible people in the household are interviewed every six months.
Having access to this data allows us to see specific trends that are happening with crime across the United States. There are also issues with the information because information gaps exist for youth, international crime, and other exclusions.
There are several pros and cons of the NCVS to consider when looking at this day. Because it relies on a sample instead of a census, it is essential to remember that the findings are only estimates.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.