Does being involved in acts of criminality negate an individual’s status as a ‘deserving’ victim?
Traditionally, criminologists and the criminal justice system have considered offenders and victims as two distinct groups, completely different from each other. This assumption was based on the considerable body of evidence that suggests that victims and offenders are very much different from each other (Broidy et al. 2006).
Norwegian criminologist, Nils Christie (1986) attempted to present an idealised picture of the victim, a stereotype created to present the ideal-victim and its attributes. The ideal victim is considered to be separate and different from the offender. In the model presented by Christie (1986), the victim is blameless, sympathetic, and weak, whereas the offender is strong and unambiguously bad. More importantly, the victim presents the appropriate combination of sympathy, influence and power to be able to receive the victim status without risking opposition or threatening countervailing interests. In contrast, there is a substantial body of evidence that suggests that the two groups present similarities.
Multiple studies have discovered that victims and offenders present similarities in behaviours as well as demographics (Cohen et al, 1981; Lauritsen et al, 1991). For example, Fattah (1991) argued that offenders are more likely to be victimized compared to non-offenders and that the victims of crimes are more likely to be involved themselves in criminal activities. Consequently, an increase within the victim-offender overlap studies has emerged (Broidy et al. 2006).
The victim-offender overlap has at heart the idea that the offender and the victim are often one and the same (Sampson & Lauritsen, 1990). Moreover, the theory suggests that being involved in criminal activities, whether as a victim or offender, increases the risk of victimisation and offending (Lauritsen, 1991). Therefore, offenders are likely to have been/ become victims and victims are likely to have been/become offenders. Further on, studies have shown that being involved in a criminal lifestyle may be, in fact, one of the most victimogenic of lifestyles (Jensen & Brownfield, 1986).
The increased contact with other criminal offenders, the nature of crime along with the low reporting rates if victimized, are contributing factors to victimization. Moreover, the alcohol and drug misuse and the long periods of time away from home serve as a decreased guardianship potential that will end in victimization (Burke, 2010). For example, a study made by Dobrin (2001) concluded that individuals that have been previously arrested presented a higher risk for future victimisation (homicide in particular) than the individuals with no record. Further on, it has been argued that the likelihood of being a murder victim increased significantly according to the number of arrests that the individual presented (Bottoms and Costello, 2001).
This type of behaviour is explained by the routine activity theory that suggests that a crime can only occur if three elements are present: motivated offenders, suitable targets and the absence of a capable guardian. Felson (1998) claimed that the lack of one element from the three is sufficient to prevent the crime from happening. Moreover, Cohen and Felson (1979) argued that the risk of criminal victimisation is directly dependent on the circumstances and locations in which the victims find themselves. Regarding the ‘ideal victims’, routine activities have their focus on the alteration of the victim’s lifestyle in order to reduce criminal risk and opportunities. This approach had faced criticism due to its tendency to underplay inequalities in the distribution of victimisation and focusing more on the immediate features of criminal incidents. The positivist approach of Victimology had at heart the pattern of victimisation and their relation to the crime-reduction and prevention strategies through victim-blaming and victim-precipitation theories.
The victim-precipitation theory had its focus on classifying victims according to their culpability and how ‘victim-prone’ they are. According to Miers (1989), this approach has its focus on the following:
‘identification of factors that are contributing to a non-random pattern of victimisation, a focus on interpersonal crimes of violence, and a concern to identify victims who may have contributed to their own victimisation’.
Scholars, such Hans Von Henting (1948) attempted to understand the victim-offender relationship. He argued that the victim moulds the perpetrator. For example, the ignorant, poor immigrant is responsible for breeding a peculiar kind of fraud. His approach has been highly discredited due to the association with the victim-precipitation and victim-blaming implications. Based on his insight, Wolfgang (1958) and colleagues examined 588 cases of homicide within four years’ time frame and discovered that in 150 cases, victim-precipitation was indeed involved. Such premise had its limitations due to its normative implications.
Moreover, the premise of victim-precipitation in itself has the potential of absolving the offenders for responsibility for their crimes, in some circumstances. For example, for decades, females have been blamed for rape and domestic violence. This type of thinking had the role of discrediting the female victims of rape, sex trafficking or even murder based on the fact that they were not appropriately dressed or that they provoked through their behaviour. Hence, the victimisation that they suffered. Further on, Amir (1971) applied this victim-precipitation view in a study of rape victims and his findings have shown that one fifth of the victims have somehow precipitated their victimisation. As expected, his work has faced criticism due to the limited views about the nature of victimisation. In particular, Walklate (1989) argued that this approach has failed to consider the structural circumstances in which victims find themselves and its focus is mainly on choices and individual events.
Further more, sex trafficking has been recognised as a great concern and attempts were made in order to identify it as a social problem. In the past, sex workers or prostitutes have been labelled as ‘whores’ or ‘sluts’ who engage in this type of behaviour voluntarily for money. This type of behaviour was considered degrading and immoral and was ‘rewarded’ with harsh punishments. Decades later, the criminal justice has changed perspectives and shifted its view of prostitution as a form of trafficking (Klevens, 2002). Therefore, the criminal justice actors are now very important in identifying the victims. For example, sex workers are often engaged in criminal activities such as prostitution or drug use, which will put them in contact with police officers or legal officials. As a response, the justice system is offering a point of intervention where the victims will get the help they need and be offered support (Ross, 2010).
In addition, the legal officials have changed the terminology from ‘prostitute’, which implies that the victim is responsible for its own victimisation, to victim of ‘trafficking’, term that implies that the victim has been coerced and taken advantage of by the actual offender (Fiebert, 2004). This approach has been given increasing importance due to its ability to influence and chance the public’s views of this type of offences and the level of support for intervention and prevention (Straus, 1993)). The focus is to rescue the victims rather than prosecute and punish them for things they did while exploited. However, not everyone comes to agreement with this type of perspective. Some legal officials or police officers are unwilling or unable to change their views, which will often lead to the miss-classification of events. In an interview, a police officer claimed:
‘Yeah. I mean, yeah, and I think there is a lot of people out there: prosecutors, law enforcement, period, that they just don’t really believe a lot of these people are victims. I mean, they’re just never going to believe it…they saw these girls and all they saw were stripper whores’ (Farrell et al, 2010).
More importantly, the negative interactions between the sex workers and the law enforcement officers will lead to mistrust and will discourage the victims to identify as such (Crager, 2003).
An interesting approach would be the consequences of nurture within the making of a serial killer. Many studies have shown that most serial killers have been, in one way or another, victims of sexual or violence abuse, rape, neglect, etc. While a serial killer is fully guilty for its offences, it doesn’t change the fact that he/she has been victimised in the past. Multiple times, that victimisation influenced the future offending and served as mitigating circumstances in trials. The victim status remains regardless of the actions or offences of the victim (Loeber et al. 2005).
Further on, it could be argued that victims of a car accident as a result of jay walking should be deprived of their victim status due to their illegal cross of the street. Victims of rape could be blamed for their appearances and provoking clothes, or simply for being out at night, for example. Victims of burglary or theft should be deprived of their status simply because they forgot to lock the door at night or because they were carrying a specific amount of money with them (Walklate, 1989).
The positivist approach of understanding the victim-offender relationship has been the victim-blaming theory. In its incipient form, the theory attempted to identify the importance of this relationship in explaining criminal events. However, this approach has the potential of taking a less attractive form, one where the victim is blamed for its victimisation and if it was not for its own culpability, no crime would have occurred. The victim-blaming is still prevalent in today’s society and associated with various types of crimes.
As mentioned above, prostitution or sex trafficking can be offered as example. Further on, violence against women, domestic violence and rape victims have been treated as culpable for their victimisation. Such approach has, consequently, led to the effective denial of the victim status. If the individual is presented, to an extent, culpable for its victimisation, the ‘innocence’ is no longer present, therefore they to not measure up to Christie’s (1986) ideal victim view.
In order to asses if the victim status should be negated for individuals involved in criminal activities, the term victim should be defined. According to the 1985 United Nations Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crimes and Abuse of Powers, ‘victims’ are the individuals whom personally or collectively suffered harm , that including emotional suffering, mental or physical injury, substantial impairment of their fundamental rights or economic loss through acts that are in violation of criminal law operatives within Member States. Under this Declaration, the victim status is valid regardless of whether the perpetrators have been apprehended, identified or convicted and of their relationship with the victim. The Declaration does not mention that an individual is considered a victim only if it has a clean record or was not involved in criminal activities before or at the time of the victimisation. The Declaration states that any person is considered to be a victim of crime if their basic right for life, freedom, physical welfare has been breached, regardless of the lifestyle that the victim is having. If any person has suffered harm, physically, emotionally, financially, it is given the victim status (Jennings, 2011).
In conclusion, victims and victimology have been highly neglected in the history. In recent times, victimology has been given increasing importance and attention. This has helped the general public, legal officials and victims to understand the meaning of victimology, the extent of victimisation and provided ways to help the victims of crime. The perception of victims is still not fully formed, and it stands more on the moral beliefs of any individual rather than the actual meaning of what a victim is.
Further on, the growth of victim support agencies and criminal justice attention is encouraging. Moreover, the implementation of intervention and prevention strategies have raised the support end empathy of the general public towards the victims of crime. Victimologist approaches, more specific positivist victimology attempted to explain crime and victimisation through the relationship between the victim and its offender. Theories, such as victim-precipitation and victim-blaming received considerable criticism due to their focus mainly on the victim’s choices rather than the circumstances of their victimisation.
Ultimately, an individual should be given the victim status if he/she have been the victim of a crime, regardless of lifestyle, criminal convictions or moral beliefs.
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