Criminologists understood that there existed a “dark figure” of crime consisting of events not reported to the police (Biderman and Reiss, 1967). Scattered studies of victimization, principally in Europe, suggested that the dark figure might be both very large and highly selective, raising important questions about what could be learned from crime data.
Crime surveys promised to provide an alternative, often better, and certainly more adaptable source of data on crimes and victims, one that could shine new light on the dark figure. Surveys commissioned by the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (1967) during the 1960s led toward the NCVS, which was further shaped by an extensive program of methodological research during the 1970s. As it developed, the survey proved to be a source of several important streams of new data, giving analysts more flexibility in using them to address policy and research questions.
In evaluating and assessing any program, it is essential to consider the program’s goals: what the program is intended to do and how objectives may have changed over time. Accordingly, this chapter reviews the fundamental goals of the NCVS, starting with a review of goal statements that have been advanced over the years (Section 2–A). In subsequent sections, we discuss some of the major themes in these goal statements in more detail: NCVS as a source of data on victims of crime (2–B), as counterpart to the UCR and a check on crimes reported to the police (2–C), as a tool for analytic flexibility in studying different crime types (2–D), as a source for information on special topics in crime (2–E), and as a response to specific legal mandates (2–F). We return to discussion of specific goals at the close of Chapter 3, after surveying major issues facing the NCVS.
As part of its comprehensive review, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (1967:38) observed that “one of the most neglected subjects in the study of crimes is its victims: the persons, households, and businesses that bear the brunt of crime in the United States.” The commission argued:
Both the part the victim can play in the criminal act and the part he could have played in preventing it are often overlooked. If it could be determined with sufficient specificity that people or businesses with certain characteristics are more likely than others to be crime victims, and that crime is more likely to occur in some places than in others, efforts to control and prevent crime would be more productive. Then the public could be told where the risks of crime are greatest. Measures such as preventive police patrol and installation of burglar alarms and special locks could then be pursued more efficiently and effectively. Individ-