Yearly cost of crime is put at $450 billion Survey tries to put price on violence in U.S.

experts question figure

April 22, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Crime costs Americans at least $450 billion a year, according to the most comprehensive survey ever done on the price of violence.

The report, done for the Justice Department, is the first to try to measure the cost of child abuse and domestic violence along with crimes like murder, rape and robbery. It is also the first to estimate the mental health care costs and the reduced quality of life for victims of crime.

The report calculates out-of-pocket costs covering items like legal fees, lost work time and the cost of police work as well as intangibles, like the affection lost for a murder victim's family. The authors devised a formula for the intangibles.

The study excludes the cost of running the nation's prisons, jails and parole and probation systems, which would add $40 billion, bringing the total annual cost of crime to almost $500 billion, according to other Justice Department statistics.

By comparison, the Defense Department's budget for 1995 is $252.6 billion.

"The estimate of $450 billion for crime is an amazing number which tells us just how heavy a burden that crime and the fear of crime place on our society," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the ranking Democratic member of the House subcommittee on crime.

"This report could change the debate" on crime, Mr. Schumer said, "because it shows that while most people think a $1 billion anti-crime program is a large number, it's really just a drop in the bucket."

The report, "Victim Costs and Consequences: A New Look," was sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department.

The authors of the report are Mark A. Cohen, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management; Ted R. Miller, associate director of the National Public Services Research Institute in Landover and Brian Wiersema, research coordinator for the Violence Research Group at the University of Maryland.

The authors make no recommendations on the best mix of measures to control crime. But they point out that ignoring the intangible benefits of crime reduction "can lead to a misallocation of resources."

The average rape, for example, incurs "out-of-pocket costs" to the victim of $5,100, far less than the $20,000 annual cost of a prison cell, the authors said.

But when the rape's effect on the victim's quality of life is calculated, the cost soars to $87,000, many times greater than the price of a prison cell, the study concludes.

While the report has been praised by a number of academic specialists and law-enforcement authorities, others have raised questions about the methodology used in calculating the intangible costs such as pain, suffering and reduction in the quality of life.

Alfred Blumstein, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, said the $450 billion-a-year estimate "is unreasonably high," giving too much weight to the intangible factors.

Dr. Blumstein, a leading criminologist, and some other specialists expressed concern that the very high estimate made it easier to justify building expensive prisons and handing out longer sentences.

Pub Date: 4/22/96

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