In response to the violent killings of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement and the challenges of serving victims of crime during a pandemic, advocates and policymakers are grappling with decisions about reinvesting in communities to promote public safety and reduce harm.
To determine where to invest, it’s helpful to know how much programs and services cost and what costs crime victims face. One important barrier: we don’t know the actual financial costs of victimization, and there is little research consensus on the best way to calculate them.
To begin tackling this dilemma, Urban Institute researchers worked with the Justice Research and Statistics Association and the National Center for Victims of Crime on a National Institute of Justice–funded project estimating the financial costs of crime victimization. Our national survey of crime victim service providers revealed what the field already knows, the challenges to producing rigorous data, and the usefulness of cost estimates.
Here are five valuable recommendations from those working with victims:
Capture harm with a wide lens. As one service provider stated, “There is no way to fully gauge the impact [of victimization experiences] to victims.” However, research can better capture the full scope of victimization’s effects. Respondents most frequently saw emotional suffering and fear in their clients, which are difficult-to-measure intangible costs with financial impacts.
Service providers also cited economic harms that are repeatedly missing from calculations, such as housing, transportation, and child care costs. Estimates typically consist of physical and mental health care costs, lost property, and lost wages, overlooking the costs of seeking services, engaging with the justice system, or responding to trauma.
Providers emphasized the need to consider costs over a longer time frame than generally fit into common research scopes, including life-long and multigenerational harms.
Service providers indicated a need to account for polyvictimization. When asked which crimes have particularly misunderstood harms, respondents overwhelmingly noted gender-based violence and other crimes that typically are ongoing and connected.
Consider the costs of and barriers to seeking help. More than 85 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that services of all types would reduce victimization harms, including health services, victim advocacy, housing assistance, and legal services.
And costs don’t stop once the victim moves beyond the initial crime. Service providers emphasized that participating in systems designed to help—including criminal justice, law enforcement, and immigration systems—can be costly for the victim. It is critical to consider how the justice system can revictimize victims, how abusers can manipulate systems to further harm victims, and what the costs are to participating in the justice system or accessing services.
- Don’t forget about others. Although victims’ family members are most negatively affected by victimization (more than 75 percent said families are often or always affected), victims’ friends, neighbors, and school or work associates can also experience negative emotional and financial effects. Respondents felt we must consider the harms to the community as a whole and those working with victims, including caregivers, case managers, and service providers.
Give service providers tools they can use. Providers want—and already use—cost data to support their services. The majority of service providers thought this information would be useful, although three times as many had calculated the cost of victim services rather than the cost of harm to victims (34 percent versus 10 percent, respectively).
The most-cited uses for both numbers were to “advocate for increased resources” and “reference for grant applications.” Service providers want to use cost of victimization data for policy advocacy and public education, whereas they need cost of services data to shape internal decisions about program operations. Researchers should examine how they are presenting cost data and what user-friendly tools can be created for practitioners.
Use cost estimates with caution. Service providers expressed concern for the unintended consequences of quantifying harms and services, fearing it would result in new or increased victim blaming, public misconceptions, and funding shifts.
“I just don't want to see victims of domestic violence blamed for ‘costing more’ because they ‘stayed too long,’” said one service provider.
Another provider: “We have seen figures like this used to justify REDIRECTING funds (for example, to housing and away from advocacy programs). It is important to communicate a holistic approach to services.”
These concerns indicate a need to carefully consider the context behind the different ways cost estimates are and can be used.
We still have a lot to learn about victimization cost estimates. Research must reflect the reality of those experiencing victimization and the needs of those who would use such data. The responses from service providers show how research on this topic can grow to inform and assist the victim services and crime response fields.