Guest blog post: Measuring victim costs to inform justice policy: What is the cost of not sleeping?

By , March 31, 2011

Susan Xenarios is the director of the Crime Victims Treatment Center at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York. She is also the co-chairperson for the Downstate Coalition for Crime Victims and a member of the Advisory Council for the New York State Crime Victims Board.

After more than 30 years working with people who have survived violent crime, I’m not shy about confronting victimization issues head on. That’s why I’m excited about the implications of measuring and driving home the true costs of victimization and informing criminal justice policy making. While it is difficult to put a monetary figure on victim costs beyond medical expenses, it is extremely important to try to provide policymakers with the evidence of the often long-term repercussions of violence.

There is a lot of variability in how people experience victimization. Some cope well at first, but deteriorate later, experiencing post-traumatic symptoms that inhibit their ability to work or even leave the house. Long-term medical expenses arise in some cases, such as treatment for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases as well as therapeutic costs for psychological problems. Jury awards, which are sometimes used to estimate the cost of pain and suffering for victims of violent crime, often significantly underestimate the costs, because juries don’t have information about the realities facing crime victims. What is the cost of not sleeping?

The very fact of this variability adds complexity to the public policy discussion on how to serve victims—especially in a time of constrained budgets. Lately, however, I’ve seen a greater receptivity to analyses of victim costs from legislators and budget-makers who realize they need to make smart, effective decisions on programming.

How can we carry that message forward? Economists who measure victim costs and victims’ advocates should communicate about how to determine the true costs of victimization.

Vera Institute of Justice’s cross-sectoral work in identifying the true costs of victimization is a boon to this kind of information-sharing. At its recently convened roundtable of experts at the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences meeting in Toronto, 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 built on the distinction between tangible and intangible costs, devising a three-tiered structure for victim costs that includes monetary costs, pain and suffering costs, and community costs.

I’d like to see that kind of conversation continued in New York and around the country, to build a widespread, realistic understanding of victim costs.

This blog post also appears on “Current Thinking,” the blog of the Vera Institute of Justice, which is the Cost-Benefit Knowledge Bank’s parent organization.

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