Who is Most Likely to be a Crime Victim?
If you watch one of the many television crime dramas that are on now, you might think you know the answer to this question. But looking at the actual statistics might surprise you.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics has conducted the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) each year since 1973, asking a random sample of Americans twelve and older about their experiences with crime during the past year.
This survey is important because many crimes, especially minor crimes like theft, never get reported to police. So if we relied solely on law enforcement agency data, we might never get a good picture of the prevalence of crime. For instance, by comparing the NCVS to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, a database of crimes and arrests based on law enforcement data, we can also get an idea of how many rapes get reported to the police and how many don’t.
Here are some things the NCVS teaches us about crime victimization from 1973 to 2006, the most recent year for which data are available:
1. Violent victimization is on the decline
Between 1973 and 1993, violent victimization held somewhat steady, hovering just under 50 per 1,000 (this means that for every thousand Americans, fifty were victims of violence) to around 20 per 1,000 in 2006. This trend mirrors FBI data, which also details a sharp crime decline after the early 1990s. As you can see below, property crime declined significantly too.
2. Teens and young adults are the most likely victims of violent crime
Young people are the most likely victims of violent crime. In 2006, young adults 20-24 were slightly more likely to report victimization than teens after many years of teens being the group most likely to be victims of violence. This isn’t necessarily because teens themselves are more violent—according to then FBI Uniform Crime Reports the vast majority of people arrested for violent crime (more than 80 percent) are adults.
Take a look at the lowest line on the graph above; despite the common perception that the elderly are highly likely to be victims of violence, they are the group least likely to be victimized.
3. Blacks are more likely to be victims of violence than whites
Unfortunately, the NCVS data on race only considers two categories. From the graph above, it is clear that black victimization is higher than the rate for whites. Although the rates for both groups have declined in recent years, we can see that black victimization has increased slightly, while white victimization has remained flat.
4. Males are more likely to be victims of violence than females
With the exception of rape, males are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than females are. As Sally Raskoff blogged about last year, we tend to believe that females are more vulnerable to violence. Boys and men are more likely to be victims of assault, robbery, and homicide than girls or women are.
5. Low-income people are more likely to be victims
The NCVS data reveal that those with household incomes below $7,500 are more than three times more likely to be robbed than those with incomes above $75,000. This might seem counterintuitive; wouldn’t wealthier people have more and better stuff to take? They probably do, but poorer people are more likely to live in higher crime neighborhoods, and criminals typically victimize those around them the most. It’s more convenient.
Poor people are not just more likely to be robbed. Those at the lowest income level are victims of aggravated assault at the rate of 13 per 1,000, compared with 3 per 1,000 in the $75,000 and over category.
Okay, now that we have some basic ideas about the age, race, gender, and class of the most likely victims of crime, let’s think about who is most likely to be featured in crime dramas. The victims on these shows tend to be (although are not always) sympathetic figures; after all, if we don’t care about the victim, we might not care if their assailants are caught and brought to justice.
This might lead to highlighting white female victimization, both in crime dramas and in the news to appeal to a specific target audience. Historically the fear for white women and children’s safety motivated the lynching of many black men and the passage of laws allegedly to protect women’s virtue.
In seeking a middle class audience, producers might also tend to focus on middle class victims, people we might imagine are “just like us” and therefore their victimization hits closer to home. We might also feel more emotional connection to stories about elderly victims, which heighten the sense of outrage against a heartless perpetrator.
So crime shows have a lot of compelling reasons for telling slightly different crime stories than the ones that happen in real life. Drama, after all, is heightened reality, not reality.
But it’s important to recognize that the abundance of crime dramas might distort our perception of who are most likely to be victims. Based on NCVS data, those who are young, black, male, and poor are disproportionally likely to be crime victims. Why do you think we have had an easier time viewing this group as the cause of crime, rather than as crime victims?