"The National Crime Survey Redesign," Public Opinion Quarterly, 54 (Summer 1990),
The National Crime Survey (NCS) provides estimates of the level of criminal victimization in
the United States and information on the detailed characteristics of crime incidents and
victims. There are a number of interesting methodological features of the NCS, many of which
are examined in a recent report on the survey from BJS. The NCS is a retrospective survey
like studies of voting behavior, spells of unemployment, and episodes of ill health, it poses a
recall task and relies upon the accuracy with which respondents can describe their past
experiences. The survey opens with a checklist designed to elicit reports of recent encounters
with crime, and proceeds to a set of detailed questions for those who respond affirmatively.
Most of the 18,000 or so NCS respondents each month have little to report, for recent
victimization is relatively infrequent and geographically concentrated. Many of the
methodological problems involved in fielding large retrospective panel surveys are
confounded with the topical content of the NCS, for the distribution of criminal victimization
turns out to be closely linked to many of the sources of sampling and non-sampling error
which affect such surveys.
Recognizing this, the launch of the NCS in 1972 was preceded by a series of six pilot studies
that tested alternative questionnaire strategies, responding selection procedures, and
sampling designs for the survey. This methodological scrutiny continues; almost immediately
after the NCS went into the field it was reviewed by a panel convened by the National
Research Council, and BJS has made public-use data sets from the survey widely available
through the University of Michigan's criminal justice data archive. The report of the National
Research Council (1976), reactions to published NCS reports, and the experiences of the
research community led in turn to the formation of a research consortium to consider how the
NCS could be redesigned to deal with issues that became apparent once the survey was in
the field. The redesign consortium issues its final report in 1986, and since then the BJS and
the Census Bureau have been considering its operational implications and testing revisions in
the NCS. Some changes have already been made in the survey, and many more are in the
Measurement Abstracts