Fact Sheet: Victims of Crime

About the fact-sheet series: Fact sheets summarize current literature into a short (2 page) document intended for distribution. Fact-sheets are extremely useful for academics, professionals or laypeople who are in contact with offenders, victims, corrections or the legal system in any way. They provide a means to disseminate empirically based information in a way that is both quick and useful. Fact sheets undergo the EAPL-S peer review process and editing before publication.
 
About the author: This article was written as a guest post by Vasiliki Enyo Sergianni, captain of the Hellenic police in the Department of Crimes Against Property, and undergraduate student at the Athens School of Law, Economics & Political Sciences.

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Who is a "Victim"?

Each year millions of individuals throughout the world experience ranging degrees of physical, psychological, and financial affliction due to the criminal conduct of others, private organizations, and governments. Since the inception of criminology, the victim of crime has been integral in the service of justice; yet, no single element in criminology has been more neglected than the victim.

The 7th United Nations Congress, held in Milan (1985; UN, 1999), ratified the Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power, declaring "victims (are) persons who, individually or collectively, have suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or substantial impairment of their fundamental rights, through acts or omissions that are in violation of criminal laws, including those laws proscribing criminal abuse of power.” Further, “A person may be considered a victim, regardless of whether the perpetrator is identified, apprehended, prosecuted or convicted and regardless of the familial relationship between the perpetrator and the victim”. The term "victim" also includes, where appropriate, the immediate family or dependants of the direct victim and persons who have suffered harm in intervening to assist victims in distress or to prevent victimization (Bachrach, 2000).

The Study of Victims

In the delivery of absolute justice, primary concerns are that of restoring justice to the victims and communities in the aftermath of a crime, and striking a fair balance between the rights of victims and the accused. In order to do so, more efforts must be made to extensively and accurately study the victim.  In response to these and related concerns, a separate branch of criminology was conceived to address the victims of crime. Victimology is the systematic study of the victim as a social factor of crime (Doerner & Lab, 2011).

The study of victims of crime constitutes the study of the victim’s personality, behavior, immediate surrounding and more importantly, the relationship between the victim and criminal, as well as the role of the victim in the crime. For instance, a victim study may investigate the effects of a crime on the victim’s personality, or the obligations of the State to protect and compensate the victim.  By rephrasing the principal question to ask, “what factors contributed to the crime being committed?”, victimology shifts the emphasis from a primary focus on the offender to a consideration of all the circumstances and participants involved in a crime committed. In doing so, one absolves a victim of any self-inflicted notions of responsibility in an offender’s  decision to commit a crime. Instead, the victim is acknowledge as playing a significant role in an offender’s  criminal thinking and execution of the crime itself.  For example, prior to committing the crime, a serial rapist may decide to act only once he identifies a victim who possess the characteristics that satisfies his desires and mitigates the risk of committing the crime.

Judicial Processing of Victims

After a crime is committed, the victim faces a number of key stages in the criminal justice process (Wemmers, 2009):

  1. The initial investigation and, if possible, the apprehension of the offender.
  2. The prosecution process in which a charge is determined and a plea statement is made. The preliminary hearing and provisions for bail are also treated at this stage.
  3. The court process where a verdict is rendered and a sentence is decided.
  4. Release from custody where an offender is imprisoned as a penalty.

During court proceedings, the victim is likely to take the stand and at this stage, be rendered a victim for the second time. In order to protect victims against this, some countries (such as Greece) will not prosecute certain crimes (e.g., minor physical assault on another human being) unless the victim consents to the prosecution process. In addition, the media are barred from entering the courtroom. In serious cases the judge may also order the police to protect the victim from any acts of revenge or infliction of fear.

Who is Vulnerable?

Fear of crime and its relationship to actual victimization is an important issue in victimology (Sutton et al., 2011). Factors such as the victim’s vulnerability, previous victimization, the role of the media, and lifestyle and behavior altered by fear (which in turn may forestall future victimization) are integral in understanding the dynamics in the relationship between crime and victim behavior.

Research shows that women are more fearful of crime than men, and that fear of crime increases dramatically with age (Shafer et al., 2004); however, these findings are inconsistent with the actual demographic rates of victimization. Adolescents and young adults are more likely than adults and the elderly to become victims of violent crimes, but the rate of crime against all age groups has fallen. For instance, in the 1990s, victimization rates throughout Europe were at their highest point, but have since dropped dramatically (Jaquier & Fisher, 2009).

Conclusion

Overall, it is important to understand the role of victims as a separate yet parallel construct to the perpetration of crime. We also need to recognize the importance of studying victims and the numerous hardships they can experience as they proceed through the criminal justice system.

A deeper understanding of these kinds of issues could lead to a more psychologically and ethically sound criminal justice system, which would advocate for a more appropriate treatment of victims.

Quick summary

  • The term “victim” has a far-reaching definition
  • Victimology is the study of the role victims play in crime
  • As they pass through the criminal justice system, victims can be re-victimized
  • The rate of criminal victimization is dropping
  • Those who fear being victimized most are actually at the lowest risk

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References

  1. Bachrach, M. (2000). The protection and rights of victims under international criminal law. Journal of International Law, 34, 7-20.
  2. Doerner, W. G., & Lab, S. P. (2011). Victimology: Sixth edition. Cincinnati, OH US: Anderson Publishing Co.
  3. Jaquier, V., & Fisher, B. S. (2011). Comparative victim and offender research: Cross-national and cross-cultural findings from around the world. Victims & Offenders, 6(4), 321-324.
  4. Shafer, J.A., Huebner, B.M., & Bynum, T.S. (2004). Fear of crime and criminal victimization: Gender-based contrasts. Journal of Criminal Justice, 34(3), 259-301.
  5. Sutton, R.M., Robinson, B., & Farrall, S.D. (2011). Gender, Fear of crime, and self-presentation: an experimental investigation. Psychology, Crime & Law, 17(5), 412-433. doi:10.1080/10683160903292261
  6. United nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (1999). Handbook on Justice for Victims. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=179083
  7. Wemmers, J. (2009). Victims and the International Criminal Court (ICC): Evaluating the success of the ICC with respect to victims. International Review Of Victimology, 16(2), 211-227.

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