Putting a Human Face on Crime Stats


It has been a little more than three decades since the federal government issued its first major report on how to help crime victims. Last Friday night, the U.S. Justice Department unveiled “Vision 21”–a report laying out a pathway to meet the needs of victims in a “radically different way.”

Now the question is whether policymakers on Capitol Hill and in state capitals will pay attention— in an era of strained government services and declining visibility for the nation’s crime challenges.

A central point of “Vision 21,” which was drafted during several years of consultation with crime-victim advocates, is that anti-crime policy should be based on evidence of what works and what doesn’t — an Obama Administration theme on criminal justice and a host of other issues.

After many millions of crime victimizations in the U.S., basic research lacks matching government and other available aid to the underlying problem, the report says.

The Justice Department issues two annual reports on crime levels–the National Crime Victimization Survey and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report–but both essentially are mind-numbing columns of data that don’t give much insight into the human costs of crime.

One of the report’s conclusions is that, “Vision 21 Crime victim services must be designed with a clear understanding of who is victimized and by whom, what victims need, why some victims access services and others do not, and to what extent victims' rights are enforced.”

Much of the American public might associate the word “crime” with basic offenses like murder, robberies, and burglaries.

‘Seismic Shifts’

They might not think about the “seismic attitudinal shifts in American culture” noted by the Vision 21 report that “have made populations of previously under-served victims more visible, such as minor victims of domestic sex trafficking; victims with disabilities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) victims; and older victims of sexual abuse.”

Another crime category that doesn’t get much attention is offenses affected by the environment.

The report noted that after the massive 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence reported large spikes in reports to the state domestic violence hotline at the same time as a “dramatic drop in private funding to support domestic violence programs.”

Work got underway on some of the problems identified in the report before it was issued.

For example, the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime has provided funds to its sister agency, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, to expand the National Crime Victimization Survey to document gaps in crime victim services that have been shared anecdotally in the field but but never established empirically.

The report calls for applying to the crime victim field the principles of the Justice Department’s http://crimesolutions.gov website, which presents evidence on the effectiveness of 250 anticrime programs.

“The victim assistance field must take a careful and systematic approach to institutionalizing research as the foundation for all programs and practices, while taking care not to stifle innovation,” the report says.

Some of what Vision 21 suggests can be done by reorganizing current resources at the federal, state, and local levels.

Other ideas would require additional government funds. That might seem unlikely during a time of cutbacks, but the report declared that “timidity and resignation are not part of this field's vocabulary.”

What may be needed is a new congressional look at the federal Victims of Crime Act, which the report notes contains very complex rules on what can and can’t be paid for from a fund whose income is made up of fines paid by federal court defendants.

The report says the law doesn’t allow the Justice Department to support services to some types of crime victims who currently don’t get them.

The Senate and House Judiciary Committee leaders who would consider such changes just completed a lengthy revision of Violence Against Women Act and now are embroiled in immigration reform and other issues.

The challenge for crime-victim advocates will be to convince key legislators to advance their cause on a crowded agenda.

Ted Gest is President of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington DC Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.

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