Thanks to several great U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) annual studies, we know a lot about crime. But what do we know about crime victims?
Who are they? What services do they need, which victims seek them, and what are the results?
Which victims do not report crime—and why?
Until we have clear answers to these questions—says a new report from DOJ's Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), we can't give our nation's crime victims the support they need.
The report, “Vision 21: Transforming Victim Services,” is a not only a sweeping, ambitious achievement but a call to action for the victim services field.
Only once before in our history (with OVC's New Directions from the Field: Victims' Rights and Services for the 21st Century in 1998) has the field so thoroughly assessed its status and recommended steps to advance its work. Vision 21 revisits the 1998 recommendations, evaluates our progress, and creates a detailed blueprint for transforming victim services in the decades ahead.
The pre-report literature reviews and stakeholder forums uncovered huge gaps in knowledge about crime victims. Scientific research on crime victims is sparse and sporadically applied. We need to know more about victims and their circumstances, the enforcement of victims' rights, program evaluation, and evidence-based practices to improve the quality and targeting of our work.
We need more victim-related statistical data to understand the impact and prevalence of crimes.
And we need to use such knowledge to retool and coordinate our services, expand our legislative vision and outreach, and build a technologically advanced, efficient nationwide system of victim services.
Vision 21 faces these challenges head-on.
While admitting the titanic scope of its agenda, the report outlines specific steps to begin transforming the field. It recommends conducting continuous, rather than episodic, strategic planning to effect real change; developing more and better research; ensuring statutory, policy, and programmatic flexibility to address ongoing and new challenges; and applying technology, training and innovation to equip the field for the 21st century. Such steps will put the field on the path to reaching our goals.
What excites us most about Vision 21, though, is its holistic approach to these challenges.
The crime victims' rights movement emerged from individual, grassroots efforts throughout the country. The OVC online victim services directory now lists more than 10,000 agencies, but the movement is highly fragmented, and laws and policies vary dramatically in different jurisdictions.
Although we join forces on a few occasions, such as National Crime Victims' Rights Week, we are not organized to effect the panoramic changes the report recommends. Vision 21 says all that need to change.
Such change has already begun.
Even before Vision 21 was published, the Office for Victims of Crime provided funding to the Bureau of Justice Statistics to expand its data collection activities for the National Crime Victimization Survey to include more descriptive information about victims, the services they receive, and their reasons for accessing these services. That research will give us vital empirical information on the gaps in service that we all know about but can't formally document.
Also, President Barack Obama's 2014 budget request to Congress for Fiscal Year 2014 includes not only a $95 million increase in the cap on the Crime Victims Fund (as we advocated in our May 9 blog) but also $45 million to implement Vision 21.
If Congress provides this funding, Vision 21—with funding to coordinate our nationwide efforts—will be off to a solid start.
Crime victims and their advocates owe a profound debt of gratitude to Joye E. Frost, Acting Director of the Office for Victims of Crime, and her dedicated staff—as well as every participant in the Vision 21 research—for providing this groundbreaking roadmap for our field.
Now that we know where we're headed, let's start transforming victim services in the 21st century!
Mai Fernandez is executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. She welcomes comments from readers.