National Crime Victimization Survey Essay

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The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) represents an unofficial measure of crime in the United States that focuses on surveying individuals about their experience as crime victims. The NCVS attempts to measure the frequency, characteristics, and consequences of criminal victimization for persons ages 12 and older.

The first NCVS (previously known as the National Crime Survey) was undertaken in 1972. Currently conducted by the Bureau of the Census, the NCVS surveys a representative sample of about 42,000 U.S. households, representing about 76,000 persons, about their victimization experiences during the previous 6 months. Once added to the sample, a household is queried every 6 months for a 3-year period. If initial screening questions uncover potential crime victimization, the survey is then designed to record various aspects of the criminal events, including victim demographic information, victim–offender relationships, the impact of alcohol or weapon use, the extent of injury, whether the police were contacted, and, if not, reasons for not reporting.

The NCVS focuses on the crimes of assault, sexual assault, robbery, theft, residential burglary, motor vehicle theft, and vandalism. A major purpose of the NCVS is to provide a better understanding of unreported crime, which is often referred to as the “dark figure of crime.” Thus, the NCVS serves as a significant tool in showing disparities between unreported crime and official statistics. The discrepancies are particularly high for crimes of violence, where the NCVS reports significantly higher incidences of interpersonal violence than official measures of crime (e.g., police reports or arrest records). Recent NCVS statistics show that 36% of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to police, while 45% of simple assaults are reported. Crimes of violence are often not reported to police because people feel the police will not do anything, they are embarrassed, or they fear retribution.

The results are particularly valuable in understanding the risk and impact of criminal victimization on various subpopulations, including women, the elderly, various racial and ethnic groups, the poor, and city dwellers. The NCVS is also useful in offering information to understand trends in the crimes on which it reports over time.

Critics point to some more significant deficiencies in the NCVS as a method of calculating crime statistics. First, the NCVS does not report on a wide variety of crimes, including those involving businesses or the homeless or victimless crimes. A second criticism is that, as a survey method, the NCVS is subject to the common problems of surveys in criminal justice in which participants may have erroneous recollections about past events. A third issue is that the survey method tends to underestimate certain crimes where the victim knows the offender. To address these concerns, a redesign in 1997 was intended to improve the NCVS as a survey tool.


  1. S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2005). Criminal victimization, 2004. Washington, DC: Author.

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