A framework for understanding victim costs

By , March 11, 2011

CBKB recently convened a roundtable of experts at the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences annual meeting to discuss the facts, questions, and debates surrounding the measurement and use of victim costs. We thank Mark Cohen of Resources for the Future, Susan Howley of the National Center for Victims of Crime, and Joel Rosch of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University for participating in this roundtable. An interesting and useful point that emerged from their discussion was a framework for thinking about victim costs that builds on the typical distinction between tangible and intangible costs.

This framework presents three tiers of victim costs: monetary costs, pain and suffering costs, and community costs. The first tier, monetary costs, is also known as tangible costs and includes medical costs, lost income, and property losses. Hospital expense records and the National Crime Victimization Survey, which asks victims about their medical expenses, can be used to partially estimate this first-tier of costs. The second and third tiers are usually grouped together as intangible costs. The second tier, the pain and suffering that results from victimization, can be estimated using the jury award method, described by Cohen in a 1996 study. Community costs, the third tier, includes an increased fear of crime and the deterioration of social bonds and is perhaps the most difficult tier to monetize. Cohen noted that the willingness-to-pay method, which asks individuals how much they are willing to pay to reduce crime, is the best way to account for community costs.

So, which victim costs should be included in a cost-benefit analysis? Howley and Rosch encouraged us to consider the audience for the analysis. While a willingness-to-pay estimate provides the most comprehensive figure, for instance, budget officials may be most interested in the first tier of victim costs while victim advocates may focus on the first and second tier costs. Others, like legislators or program funders, may be interested in the broader community costs. A simple solution may lie in providing all three tiers of victim costs to give people the information they’re interested in while also exposing them to the full array of victim cost estimates.

All this month, the Cost-Benefit Knowledge Bank for Criminal Justice (CBKB) highlights information on what victim costs are, how they’re measured, and how they’re used in cost-benefit studies.

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