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Historical Perspective on the National Crime Victimization Survey…50 Years of Data and Counting

By Stephanie Eckroth, PhD
BJS Technical Writer-Editor

In coming together to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) this year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) is taking a moment to reflect on the survey’s history.

The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), BJS’s predecessor, fielded the first iteration of the NCVS (then the National Crime Survey) in July 1972. The survey collected data on criminal victimization from American households and businesses both nationally and in select large metropolitan areas.

But the story of the NCVS began almost a decade earlier. In his January 1965, State of the Union Address, President Lyndon Johnson listed a national response to the issue of crime and delinquency as one of the nine foundations of his Great Society agenda. Shortly after his inauguration, Johnson delivered a Special Message to the Congress on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice announcing the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, established to lead the charge in what he called the “War on Crime.”

 This Commission, chaired by Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, was composed of 19 commissioners, 65 full-time staff, and hundreds of consultants and advisers from a wide variety of backgrounds (attorneys, corrections personnel, law enforcement administrators, psychologists, sociologists, professors, and social workers, to name a few) who launched an expansive investigation into the causes and prevention of crime in the United States. Eighteen months later, the Commission published its findings and recommendations in The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society, describing its work as “a call for a revolution in the way America thinks about crime.”   

As part of the data gathering for the report, the Commission conducted a pilot survey on crime victimization, a prototype of the NCVS. The Commission’s National Survey of Criminal Victims collected data from 10,000 households about “their experiences with crime, whether they reported those experiences to the police, and how those experiences affected their lives.” Through the survey, the Commission uncovered a significant gap between victim self-report of crimes and those reported to authorities.

The Commission recommended that this victimization survey be carried out on a continuous basis given its “great potential for discovering the extent and the nature of unreported crime.” Five years later, in July 1972, after several years of development, the LEAA in conjunction with the U.S. Census Bureau fielded the first National Crime Survey in 72,000 households, 15,000 businesses, and in 26 large metropolitan areas in the United States.

After the LEAA was disbanded in 1979, the newly established BJS continued administering the survey, renaming it as the NCVS in 1992. It has been conducted annually since the first full year of data collection in 1973, and for the past 50 years, the NCVS has been the nation’s primary source of information on criminal victimization.

The past 50 years have brought innovations in data collection methods, new survey content to address emerging crime types, and detailed statistics on crimes reported and not reported to police. Notable initiatives include the NCVS instrument redesign, the NCVS survey supplements, and the NCVS subnational estimation program. This dedication to ongoing refinement in the face of implementation and budgetary shifts and challenges has established the NCVS as the gold standard of criminal justice modernization laid out in the Crime Commission report that first influenced its development.

Past BJS directors continue to speak of the NCVS’s relevance and importance:

Many years before I was BJS director, my family was randomly selected to be a household in the NCVS sample. My wife Marcia and I were among the community of researchers who were fielding and analyzing surveys, so we knew the NCS [National Crime Survey] as an example of a well-designed survey and we were familiar with the NCS instrument. At that time, the Census Bureau sent representatives to the homes of all respondents to ask the survey questions and record answers.
“The NCVS has provided a 50-year record of the voices of crime victims and a window into the quality of life over that period.  It has given us a deeper understanding of the contingencies and consequences of victimization and insight into the willingness to report such events to law enforcement agencies. Its national representativeness allows us to query the public on special areas of victimization such as school crime, identity theft, and contacts with law enforcement. It is truly one of the most important
“It is not too much to claim that VOCA [the Victims of Crime Act] and OVC [The Office of Victims of Crime] would have been impossible without the NCVS to firmly establish that official records gave only a very partial accounting of crime and its costs/consequences to the public.”
“Victimization surveys are an invaluable part of a system of crime statistics.  They are one of the few opportunities for residents to describe directly the crime problem and responses to it. Most of the other sources of crime statistics are filtered through the administrative records of criminal justice agencies that have their own interests in defining the crime problem in one way or another.  These surveys are expensive and difficult to do, but well worth the effort."
“I was glad to learn that the NCVS instrument redesign emphasizes, among other things, gathering more information about victims’ experiences with victim services and police responses to their victimizations. These efforts take advantage of the design of the NCVS and demonstrate BJS’s continued efforts to improve the relevance of the NCVS for improving understanding about the quality of services delivered to victims of crime and for shedding light on police practices that may work well in addition to those i
  “Both DOJ [the U.S. Department of Justice] and Congress should prioritize it and ensure it has sufficient funding, for the NCVS provides the only comprehensive and credible alternative to police reports for showing who commits crimes.”

To commemorate this milestone of the NCVS 50th anniversary, on September 27, 2023, Dr. Alexis R. Piquero, BJS Director, will host a daylong series of panels and roundtables in Washington D.C. describing the past, present, and future use of the NCVSThe event will feature insights from Department of Justice and Office of Justice Programs leaders, other leaders in the federal government, nationally recognized criminal justice researchers, practitioner leaders, and subject matter experts who have worked with the NCVS.

Please join us as BJS celebrates 50 years of the NCVS… and counting. In-person seating is limited, so please register today. Virtual attendees are also welcome.

Date Published: July 28, 2023