Who Crime Victims Are and How They View Justice Reform

Mike Maciag
Governing
August 12, 2016

As policymakers in state capitols and on Capitol Hill debate criminal justice reform, it’s worth considering who crime victims are and their views on laws meant to punish those who do them harm.

A pair of national surveys sheds some light on the issue. The Justice Department’s annual National Crime Victimization Survey reports detailed data on various types of crimes and their victims. Another recent survey, commissioned by the Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ), provides information on victims' experiences with the criminal justice system and their policy preferences.

The following summarizes a few key points from the survey data.

Age is the single largest predictor of crime victimization.
The younger a person is, the higher the risk. The Justice Department survey found that those between the ages of 12 and 24 are about twice as likely to be victims of violent crime as those age 50 and older.

Similar disparities exist across income levels, with poorer households reporting far higher crime rates.

Victims frequently don't report crimes.
Crimes often aren’t reported, in large part, because victims either think they won't get help or fear retaliation.

Less than half (46 percent) of all violent crimes and only 37 percent of property crimes were reported to police in 2014, according to the Justice Department survey.

Overall rates for reporting of both violent and property crimes have changed little since the survey was conducted in 2005.

Most crime victims don't seek help.
Only a third of victims in the ASJ survey sought and received medical, economic or other assistance following a crime. Of the victims that did report receiving help, they got it from various places:

  • 1 in 4 from a law enforcement agency;
  • 35 percent from hospitals;
  • 40 percent from friends or family members.
     

It’s particularly important for teenagers and young adults to seek help because they’re especially vulnerable to trauma and other long-term effects of crime, and are more likely to become involved with criminal activity.

Groups experience the effects of crime in different ways.
In the ASJ survey, only 3 in 10 victims said they felt “very safe” in their communities. The impact that crime has on people, though, varies across demographic groups. According to the survey, 43 percent of black victims said their lives were affected by crime, compared to just 38 percent of Hispanic victims and 23 percent of non-Hispanic white victims.

People who have been victimized by crime more than once and victims who witnessed violence against others are particularly vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses. Six out of 10 victims of any crime and three-quarters of victims of violent crimes reported witnessing another person being hit or assaulted over the past decade, according to the ASJ survey.

Crime victims favor rehabilitation over punishment.
The Alliance for Safety and Justice, which advocates for state-level policy reforms, asked victims about their views on policy.

By a roughly 2-to-1 margin, victims of most genders, races and political parties said they want the justice system to focus more on rehabilitation than punishment. While victims who are black or Democrats preferred rehabilitation by the widest margins, victims who were men, white or Republicans support rehabilitation by the narrowest margins.

Similar results were found when victims were asked whether they preferred long prisons sentences or shorter sentences focusing more on prevention and rehabilitation programs. All groups surveyed favored prevention and shorter sentences.