More than 26 million people are the victims of crime every year in the United States; that's almost one in 12 Americans. As startling as those numbers are, perhaps even more surprising is the fact that very few crime victims, just 9 percent, take advantage of services that are available to help them to deal with the personal and emotional impacts of crime.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are collected for victim services each year from fines and penalties on federal offenders, but too often victim service dollars are limited in their effectiveness. They are too often directed to services that are siloed by geographic reach, type of victims served, or form of services provided. Worse, sometimes the money goes unspent.
A broader approach is needed to better address the needs of millions of American victims of crimes like sexual assault, family violence, financial exploitation, gun violence, identity theft, burglary, and stalking. And that's where Silicon Valley's tech community can step up.
Technology has been applied to the problem of linking victims with services, but on a limited scale. That has included the creation of dozens of applications by and for providers. But these efforts suffer from a lack of coordination, leaving victims struggling to find the app, website, or forum that makes the most sense for them.
Recently, a group of Silicon Valley tech experts and victim services providers got together at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View to talk about how to leverage technology to link victims with the wealth of existing service providers. The experts came from Google, Appriss Inc., National Center for Victims of Crime, the RAND Corporation, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and many other organizations. This nascent working group plans to continue its work and welcomes other voices.
Better coordination among services is an important and overlooked approach that can lead to integrated solutions; think open source. Existing platforms should also be explored, including social networks, message boards, online hotlines, games, and other resources people already are using.
In many ways, this is an awareness problem. Victims themselves may be unaware of the services that are available to them. At the same time, Americans don't particularly like to think about crime, or its aftermath, until they themselves become victims. When raising awareness is the goal, technology is an obvious tool.
The universe of crime victims is vast and diverse, as are their needs. They may need emotional support, criminal justice advocacy, safety support, case information, or help traveling to court or medical appointments. Many of these services are already out there, but finding them is not as easy as it should be.
Making sure America's crime victims find the help they need is a daunting task that will require support from policymakers, victims' groups, technology firms, and the public. But it is doable. The answer lies at the intersection of victim's services and technology.
Nelson Lim is a senior social scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.
This commentary originally appeared in San Jose Mercury News on August 8, 2014. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.