Victimization Research Paper

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The striking increase in attention to victims by the world’s criminal justice systems may well have been the most significant development in those systems during the second half of the twentieth century. In earlier times, crime victims were consigned to a peripheral position, necessary as background players but of no true importance. Once their crime report and their testimony had been recorded, they typically were ignored.

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Victims were raped, mugged, their homes invaded, their handbags or wallets stolen on the street. Then they were often ‘‘double victimized,’’ the second insult being inflicted by the authorities. Law enforcement personnel, hardened from having dealt with so many crimes for so long, failed to understand that for most people victimization is rare, often a unique and novel experience. Further frustrated by their inability to stem offenses such as burglary and car theft— crimes in which the perpetrator usually cannot be described—law enforcement agents tended to be abrupt and dismissive in the face of victims’ despair.

If the perpetrator was apprehended, very often the attorney for the accused and the prosecutor bargained the case, trading a guilty plea by the offender for a lesser sentence. Typically, nobody would inform the victim of the plea agreement or of other details regarding a settlement. In those rare instances when a case went to trial, the victim would have to miss work (and often forfeit pay), suffer through any number of postponements, and endure a grilling by the defense attorney that was meant to humiliate. Often victims found themselves alone in a hallway or waiting room with the perpetrator and his friends. In the end, crime victims usually received little satisfaction—beyond a story to tell friends and neighbors, though often a story saturated with irritation and anger.

In the United States, neglect of crime victims changed dramatically from about 1960 onward. The change had two major components. The first was the establishment of programs for victim compensation and victim and witness assistance to ease the physical, financial, and emotional burdens that can accompany criminal victimization. Efforts were made to bring victims more comprehensively into the conduct of criminal justice and to deal directly with their anxieties and outrage. Concern about an apparent growing unwillingness of victims to report offenses and cooperate with law enforcement agencies provided a further impetus for the establishment of assistance programs. Now victim cooperation is required before he or she could be compensated.

The second approach involved efforts to assess more accurately the level of criminal activity by conducting interviews with representative samples of the American population. The surveys also sought to measure correlates of the victimization experience, such as fear of crime, curtailed activities, and the respondents’ confidence in the law enforcement machinery.

There also emerged a comprehensive academic and agency research enterprise that dealt with the subject of crime victims. There now exists considerable scholarly literature on the likelihood and consequences of being a victim of particular kinds of crimes. Researchers have learned, for instance, that rape victims tend to be more traumatized if the offender is an acquaintance rather than a stranger. Burglary victims, for their part, often see the crime as an invasion of their private space and feel dirtied.

Numerous self-defense strategies, some of them controversial, have been advanced for victims to use in protecting themselves. An intense debate concerns whether carrying a gun safeguards a person against a predator or instead escalates violence and endangers the carrier by encouraging risky responses. Rape victims confront a similar dilemma: will forceful resistance cause a sexual aggressor to desist, or will it result in greater injury or in death? Other advice is less arguable. To protect against theft, potential victims (all of us) have been advised that the best place to secrete valuables is in a child’s room: experienced burglars will get in and out of a house very quickly, usually searching only the bedroom, perhaps a desk, and the kitchen, seeking primarily cash, weapons, and jewelry (Wright and Decker).

Professionals involved with crime victims formed an organization, now called the World Society of Victimology, which cooperates with the United Nations and the Council of Europe on issues related to crime victims. The society directory notes that ‘‘its members from around the world brought together by their mutual concern for victims, include victim assistance practitioners, scientists, social workers, physicians, lawyers, university professors, and students.’’ The group first met in Jerusalem in 1973 and ushered in the new century with its tenth meeting, held in Montreal in August 2000.

Distinguishing Victims and Offenders

An obvious but important difference between offenders and victims is that the former have done something against the law. In an effort to understand the roots of their behavior we can look at offenders’ upbringing, values, school performance, and associates. We can have them undergo psychological tests to seek to determine how they might differ from nonoffenders and how those who committed one type of offense might be distinguished from those who engaged in another kind of lawbreaking.

Victims of crime, on the other hand, typically do not engage in particular behavior that might result in their victimization. Some, however, may have been involved in actions correlated with criminal outcomes: drunkenness and aggressive verbal behavior in a bar is one of innumerable examples. But a large percentage of crime victims show no qualities or behavior that might allow them to anticipate their fate. They might be passengers on an airplane that is hijacked, or customers in a grocery store who are shot during a holdup because the perpetrator wants to avoid being identified. Or they may be windowshopping pedestrians who are run over by a drunk driver who loses control of his vehicle. Anyone might readily be a crime victim, but most people will never engage in the heinous criminal offenses that occupy the study of criminal behavior.

Nonetheless, despite the fact that a considerable percentage of victims are virtually random recipients of injury and loss, there exists a coterie of chronic victims, persons who suffer multiple victimizations, well beyond the number that would be presumed to be their lot if victimization were a chance occurrence. A review of the four British Crime Surveys—those of 1982, 1984, 1988, and 1992—found that between 1.1 and 2.2 percent of victims of property crimes had been afflicted at least five times in the course of slightly more than one year. For crimes of violence the figure ran from 0.7 to l.0 percent of the victim totals. In addition, between 24 and 38 percent of personal and property offenses were inflicted on people who experienced five or more such offenses during the same time period.

The British survey found that 63 percent of all property crime victims had suffered at least one other such victimization during the fifteenmonth study period. For personal crimes the figure rose to 77 percent. The researchers noted that massive crime reductions are available simply by the reduction of repeat victimization (Ellingsworth, Farrell, and Pease). The precise explanation for the multiple victimization phenomenon is still largely unclear. The first victimization is said to become an important factor in predicting future victimization and that multiple victimizations are related in a complex way to both household and area characteristics (Osborn, Ellingsworth, Hope, and Tickett).

When there are crimes almost invariably there will be criminals, even if they sometimes are anthropomorphized institutions, such as corporations, that commit offenses such as antitrust violations. But there are many crimes in which there are hordes of unknowing victims or no victims at all. What theater patrons who have several dollars in change in the coat that they check in the cloakroom will be aware that the attendant has helped himself or herself to a few quarters? Who counts the number of rubber bands in a package that says, incorrectly, that it has one hundred, or who knows whether a gas station tank reading has been altered illegally?

Drunken driving offers an example of an offense in which there is a criminal offense but not necessarily a victim. For some offenses, the state, under the presumption that its interests have been harmed or that it must protect its citizens from hypothetical outcomes, adopts the role of victim for some so-called victimless offenses, such as the sale of proscribed drugs or prostitution.

Distinctions between actions that produce criminals and those that produce crime victims have contributed significantly to the standing and the tactics that make up the study of victims—or victimology, to use the rather awkward term coined by Beniamin Mendelsohn in the early 1940s. Unable to ‘‘explain’’ victimization, those who specialize in its study tend to focus on its dimensions, its consequences, and the way that the social and political system deals with it.

There is some sparse theoretical work bearing on the process of victimization. In a 1958 study, sociologist Marvin Wolfgang noted that for about a quarter of homicides ‘‘the victim may be one of the major precipitating causes of his own demise’’ (p. 245). Wolfgang coined the phrase victim-precipitation to identify such situations: ‘‘The victim-precipitated cases are those in which the victim was the first to show and use a deadly weapon, to strike a blow in an altercation—in short, the first to commence the interplay of recourse to physical violence’’ (p. 252).

Almost forty years later, Kenneth Polk in a study of homicides in Melbourne, Australia, found essentially the same pattern and percentage of victim-precipitation that Wolfgang had documented in Philadelphia. William E. Foote, after a comprehensive review of studies using the concept, suggests that in the future attempts ought to be made to divide victim-precipitation into relevant types. Among the more interesting separate forms are incidents that Foote calls intentional victim-precipitated deaths, instances in which persons deliberately engage in episodes that they desire to have lethal consequences. Shooting at a police car would be an example of what Foote calls suicide by cop.

But when Israeli criminologist Menachem Amir sought to apply the concept of victimprecipitation to rape victims, scholars insisted, correctly, that it did not necessarily travel well from one kind of offense to another, that factors such as wearing ‘‘provocative’’ clothing differ significantly from starting a barroom brawl. William Ryan’s classic Blaming the Victim satirizes the tendency to denigrate victims with a story of a U.S. senator fulminating in front of colleagues who are debating the origins of the Second World War. ‘‘What was Pearl Harbor doing there?’’ he asks, apropos the 1941 Japanese bombing of the Hawaiian naval base (pp. 153–154).

The Emergence of Victim Concerns

It is not an easy task to disentangle the diverse elements that energized the movement toward greater recognition of the role and importance of victims in criminal justice affairs. For centuries their condition aroused little comment or interest. Then they were ‘‘discovered,’’ and afterward it was unclear how their neglect could have gone without remedy for so long.

In the United States, national politics first moved the subject of crime victims onto center stage. In 1964, Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for president, thrust the issue of crime into his campaign. It was a false issue, in the sense that the federal government does not have jurisdiction over most kinds of criminal activity that concern the average citizen. A president can do little, except perhaps symbolically, to make a notable impact on criminal behavior; such behavior is almost exclusively the concern of state, county, and municipal governments.

Goldwater, nonetheless, had touched a sensitive public nerve. Citizens responded to his allegations that the Democrats were soft on crime, an accusation seemingly supported by the party’s opposition to capital punishment, their considerable concern with the rights of defendants, and their unwillingness to endorse tougher punishment policies.

President Lyndon Johnson, who defeated Goldwater, chose a time-tested political strategy to defuse the crime issue. He appointed the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, with a sweeping mandate to examine and make recommendations about virtually all aspects of the crime problem (the death penalty was one of the exceptions). The commission endorsed the fledgling victim compensation programs and launched a pioneering project to better measure the extent of traditional crime by means of a series of surveys of the population. These probes sought to shed some light on what is known as the dark figure in crime, offenses that fail to come to the attention of the authorities.

National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)

In a variety of sizes and shapes, victimization surveys are conducted today in many of the major countries of the world. Since l989, under the leadership of the Netherlands, a group of countries have collaborated on a standard survey technique that allows some comparative conclusions to be drawn. In 1989 the lowest European crime rates were found in Northern Ireland, Switzerland, and England, and the highest in Spain and the Netherlands (Dijk, Mayhew, and Killias). Three years later the results were essentially the same, though the English rate had escalated somewhat (Dijk and Mayhew).

In the United States, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) was begun in 1972 by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. A thoroughgoing revision of the survey instrument in 1992 makes it impossible to compare earlier results with those obtained since that date. The new screening procedures introduced in 1992 included detailed cues to help respondents recall crime incidents; they produced a higher reported level of victimization, especially for assaults. The updated approach also focuses more heavily on offenses committed by family members against each other and by acquaintances. These are subjects that respondents often are reluctant to discuss without considerable prompting.

The victimization survey now is conducted by the Bureau of the Census under the auspices of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, housed in the U.S. Department of Justice. NCVS interviews are held every six months, using a national panel of approximately 49,000 households with a total of about 101,000 residents. Ninety-five percent of the persons asked to participate in the survey agree to do so. A single household respondent details crime victimizations for all members of the household over the age of twelve in interviews that take about half an hour. Each household is contacted for information seven times. The first and the fifth interviews are done faceto-face; the other five are conducted by telephone. If a household changes location its members remain in the survey pool for the full period before being replaced on the panel. The approach minimizes telescoping, that is, the tendency of persons to report victimizations that occurred before the time period of concern. To keep the data as time-bound as possible, the results of the initial interview with a household are not included in the NCVS.

The victim survey inevitably reports a good deal more criminal activity—more than twice as much—than does the annual Uniform Crime Reports issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which takes into account only offenses reported to the police.

Problems with The Victimization Survey

A shortcoming of the NCVS is that respondents may be inclined to report events that are not criminal, though they believe them to be. This has been particularly true in regard to minor assaults, which rarely capture the attention of law enforcement. Also, series incidents, matters such as spouse abuse, that often have no clearcut beginning or end, frustrate the NCVS since the survey focuses only on discrete events. There also is the matter of bias inherent in the interview format. Persons may desist reporting if what they have to say involves too much of their time and becomes tedious, or they may feel compelled to play into what they interpret as an interviewer’s desire to hear about a lot of criminal episodes, real or imagined. Besides, the respondent may not recall or be aware of all of the victimization experiences of other people living in the household. In addition, the NCVS fails to include the experiences of persons not anchored in fixed households, such as the homeless and transients.

Bias that intrudes into victim surveys is shown by the finding that persons with college degrees typically report more assaults than do persons with only an elementary school education (Gove, Hughes, and Geerken). Since it is likely that members of the latter group actually have been victimized by assaults at least as much and probably much more often than the collegeeducated group, it is reasonable to believe that behaviors that are regarded as routine and inconsequential by persons in the less welleducated group are taken much more seriously by those with more schooling.

Finally, reverse record checks have discovered that persons who reported to the police a crime committed against them by an acquaintance often failed to inform a victimization interviewer of the event. The reverse record checks found that two-thirds of such offenses were not mentioned in crime victim surveys, while threequarters of the crimes reported to the police and committed by strangers were disclosed.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics supplemented the NCVS survey by conducting a citylevel telephone survey in 1999. A total of some eight hundred households were contacted in twelve cities, using a method called random digital dialing. The survey found that from 20 to 48 percent of the respondents noted that they were ‘‘fearful’’ of crime, though in no city did more than 10 percent say that they were ‘‘very fearful.’’ The highest levels of expressed fear were in Chicago and Washington, D.C. (48%) and the lowest in Madison, Wisconsin (20%) (Smith, Steadman, Minton, and Townsend).

The Incidence of Victimization

The NCVS shows that Americans experience more than thirty million victimizations each year. In any one year, a person has about a 3 percent chance of being a victim of a crime of violence. That figure is more than double for property offenses.

Teenage black males are the most likely victims of crimes of violence, followed by teenage black females. The next four highest victimization rates, in descending order, are for teenage white males, young adult black males, young adult black females, and teenage white females. The elderly—be they male, female, black, or white—have the lowest victimization rates from violence.

Persons most victimized by property crimes are teenage white males and adult black males. Least victimized are elderly black males and elderly black females. This somewhat counterintuitive finding may result from property offenders targeting affluent neighborhoods where the haul is more likely to be worth the risk.

The surveys pinpoint the considerable toll that crimes of violence take upon young black youths. The strikingly lower rate of victization of elderly persons by both crimes of violence and property offenses in one respect challenges the rationality of the commonly reported high level of fear of crime found among the elderly. An explanation offered is that older persons often have the most to lose if they are victimized: They are less likely to be able to recover (or to survive) a violent crime and they often have no way to recoup the financial loss inflicted by a burglary or other property offenses. In that regard, their fears can be seen as perfectly reasonable.

This finding of higher rates of fear of crime among the elderly, however, has been disputed by Kenneth Ferraro, who argues that too much has been made of answers to a single question on the NCVS survey and that failure to inquire about particular crimes rather than crime in general undercuts the adequacy of the responses to support the usual conclusion of a high level of fear of crime among the elderly. Ferraro’s own work indicates that the only particular offense that the elderly fear more than persons in other age groups is panhandling, and that this fear is confined to older women.

Urban metropolitan areas, expectedly, show higher crime victimization rates than suburbs and rural areas. One victimization study found that about 31 percent of the robberies in which suburbanites were victims occurred while they were in a central city and only 6.2 percent outside that city’s boundaries (Dodge, p. 2).

White-Collar Crime Victimization

The NCVS’s focus on victimization by socalled street crimes to the neglect of white-collar or suite crimes reinforces the greater public attention accorded offenses generally committed by persons in the lower socioeconomic strata. Fraud and other white-collar crimes can visit severe economic and psychological hardships on their victims. Some white-collar crimes, such as medical malpractice and pollution, kill and maim large numbers of people. While the tally of street crimes dropped significantly during the last decade of the twentieth century, the number of white-collar crimes, enforcement officials believe, has increased greatly. Victim complaints to the Securities and Exchange Commission, for instance, jumped by 20 percent between 1996 and l998.

Fraud has been labeled assault with a fiscal weapon. A newspaper report tells of a bogus scheme in which persons were persuaded to invest in supposedly ultra-safe securities backed by banks and real estate. In the end, the victims of the scam were bilked of at least $20 million. Some lost their homes, many marriages were bruised, and retirements postponed.

The National White-Collar Crime Center reported in mid-l999 that almost 40 percent of the persons in a nationwide sample said that they were defrauded in some way during the previous year. Most complained of consumer rip-offs such as unnecessary auto repairs. Others of the 1,169 respondents said that they had lost money through Internet schemes, credit card fraud, and investment swindles. Victim help groups note that many people who have been cheated prefer to suffer in silence rather than to seek aid because they are embarrassed about their gullibility.

Senior citizens appear to be the most common victims of telemarketing schemes, while people in their thirties and forties, often welleducated, tend most often to fall prey to Internet swindles. A study of female victims of a telemarketing oilwell scam found that the older women were likely to blame themselves, but those who were younger tended to take a more resigned and hard-boiled attitude in shrugging off the loss (Sechrest et al.).

The Costs of Crime Victimization

Researchers have estimated that in the United States the annual cost to victims of crimes against the person to be $105 billion (Miller, Cohen, and Wiersema). This figure includes medical costs, lost earnings, and the outlay for programs that provide victim assistance. Kennedy and Sacco raise the loss figure to $426 billion for violent crimes and $24 billion for property crimes by adding in the price of pain and suffering, but they emphasize that these victim cost estimates are far from being totally reliable figures.

Hate Crimes and Kindred Laws

Distinctions in the law based on the social position of the victim have long existed. Typically, criminal statutes offered greater protection for those with greater social status. In early English jurisprudence, for example, more stringent penalties were attached to the poisoning of husbands by their wives, while wife-poisoning was regarded as but another form of murder. The former called for burning at the stake; the latter for the more common punishment of hanging.

In the past two decades in the United States there has been a proliferation of laws to further protect potential crime victims who are deemed more in need of or more deserving of such protection. The mechanism purported to ensure additional victim security is tougher penalties. Most notable in this category are hate crimes, proscribed acts that are judicially determined to be motivated by prejudice against a member of a specified group. Beating a homosexual because of his sexual orientation or torching the house of a rabbi because of his faith or ethnicity will likely get the offender(s) a heavier penalty than if the same crimes had been committed, respectively, against a nonhomosexual or a non-Jew (Jacobs and Potter; Jenness and Broad).

This kind of special victim protection is extended to the elderly in some states, and during the summer of 1999 witnesses testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary pled for inclusion of women as a group under hate crime statutes. The witnesses argued that women are less able to protect themselves against male predatory behavior and are an especially vulnerable crime victim group with regard to sexual assault.

This vulnerability of women was underlined by a report in May 1999 of a national survey showing that 17.6 percent of American women have been rape victims at least once during their lifetime, with an additional 14.8 percent being victimized by an attempted rape. Forty-three percent said that they had been slapped or hit at least once in their life, 21.2 percent had been hit with an object, 6.2 percent had been threatened with a gun, and 8.l percent had been the victim of a stalking. In all, more than half of the women surveyed had been victimized by rape, physical assault, and/or stalking.

Critics of hate crime legislation see such efforts as an alliance between some politicians and segments of the electorate and more of a symbolic gesture than a practical measure. Critics argue that the law should inquire only into behavior, not into subjective motives, and point to existing penalties for non-hate crimes as sufficient to deter, or at least adequately punish, those who commit such acts. What good, some insist, is it to add the legal designation of hate crime to the murder of a black man by bigoted youths when there already exists an adequate penalty for murder? Cynics add that the lesson conveyed by the laws is that if you are going to be a sensible criminal your least dangerous course of action is to victimize someone who shares your own background and beliefs.

Crime Victim Compensation

Victim compensation programs were the earliest manifestations of what was to become a comprehensive and very powerful victims’ movement. The first programs were established in New Zealand in 1963 and in England in 1964; then victim compensation was adopted by California in 1965 and thereafter duplicated in other American states and throughout the world. A 1999 count showed that twenty-nine countries had programs to compensate crime victims. All but three offer benefits for crime-inflicted injuries suffered by foreign citizens on their soil. By law the American programs must provide assistance to U.S. residents or their survivors who are injured or killed in a terrorist attack while visiting a foreign country. The state programs are partially supported by the federally subsidized Crime Victims Fund. By 1999, state programs assisted more than two million crime victims and survivors annually.

Crime victim compensation programs have been bothered from their beginning by attempts to locate a sensible rationale for their existence. If they serve a legitimate government function, then why are there not also programs to compensate persons who suffer losses from illness or from any other problems not of their own creation? One answer has been that prudent people ought to buy insurance to protect themselves from such exigencies; but the same might be said of crime victims. Aiding crime victims has a strong political component—sponsors could score points with the electorate—which explains why this particular issue has been singled out for legislative attention.

Programs providing compensation to crime victims owe their origin to the pioneering efforts of Merger Fry, an Englishwoman and a Quaker, who devoted her life to the cause of correctional reform. Fry ridiculed the inadequacy of restitution as a court-ordered method to allay the deprivation suffered by crime victims. For one thing, she pointed out, in many instances the offender is not apprehended or, if caught, is not convicted. Even if there is a conviction, most offenders are too impoverished to pay the cost of the victim’s crime-associated expenses. For those offenders who can contribute something, such monies often have to be diverted from support of their families, who then might have to be subsidized by welfare.

Problems with restitution and with tort remedies were highlighted in the sensational O. J. Simpson case. Survivors of the victims— Simpson’s former wife’s parents and the family of Ronald Goldman, her ill-starred friend— together received a judgment of $8.5 million and were awarded punitive damages of $25 million. But they have obtained very little of that money, though Simpson lives lavishly on the $25,000 per month he receives from a judgment-proof $4.l million pension fund.

Compassion Joins Compensation

After victim compensation efforts were established, an understanding soon developed that crime victims often suffer from difficulties beyond those that can be remedied by money. In a study of victim compensation in an eastern American state, for instance, Robert Elias found that applicants to the program felt more discontented than they would have been had the program not existed. The programs led victims to anticipate that they would be helped in an expeditious and kindly manner. When they encountered delays and bureaucratic barriers to getting the money they had come to expect, they became alienated from the system and hostile to it.

When the burgeoning women’s movement turned its attention to the subject of crime, it too acknowledged that victims may need more than money to render them whole. Feminist leaders took up the cause of prostitutes, seeing them as exploited victims of a patriarchal society. Difficulties arose when many prostitutes rejected this definition, insisting that they preferred what they were doing to the menial and low-paying office or sales jobs they might otherwise be able to obtain. They saw themselves as entrepreneurs rather than as victims, and they viewed feminist concern for their plight as condescension by middle-class women.

The women’s movement, after abandoning the issue of prostitution, turned its attention to victims of rape. The offense fit particularly well with the feminist ideology of victimization by men. Overwhelmingly rape offenders are men: only two hundred or so cases each year involve arrests of women for rape, most usually as accomplices who, for instance, hold a gun on another woman while a male co-offender sexually assaults her.

Many rape victims were found to suffer profound mental anguish that could only be relieved, if at all, by participation in treatment programs. Rape victims, like victims of other offenses, also had a tendency to assume blame for what had happened to them. They would ask themselves why they had trusted the acquaintance who assaulted them, or why they had not attended to the obvious clues about their assailant’s true character. Why had they gone out that night?—and to that particular neighborhood? Why had they not fought back more forcefully or been able to talk their way out of the offense? Why had the man picked on them and not somebody else? Which attributes made them vulnerable and ‘‘victimizable’’?

The pioneering victim-support programs, often devoted exclusively to rape victims, stumbled along, generally understaffed (and usually depending largely on volunteers), until the passage by Congress in 1984 of the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA). VOCA provided subsidies not only to state victim-compensation programs (35 percent of their costs) but to victim-assistance efforts as well. In 1988, VOCA-supported programs were further authorized to claim subsidies to aid victims of domestic violence and of drunken driving.

The embrace of victim-assistance programs primarily extends to victims of sexual and spousal abuse (including marital rape, a criminal offense newly defined in the 1960s) and child abuse, again offenses largely committed by men against women and children. Somewhat cynical onlookers point out that these offenses have always existed and that the intense limelight suddenly focused on them is based primarily on political and ideological maneuvering rather than on an increase in their number or seriousness. Some claim that deep concern with child abuse is the result of efforts by medical doctors to aggrandize their own position (and increase their income) by creating the issue of batteredchild syndrome and defining a social problem as a medical matter, one calling for greater recourse to X rays and physician intervention. Attorneys are said to have prospered by filing suits against real and alleged child abusers (Costin, Karger, and Stoesz). The movement against child abuse also gave rise to a number of well-publicized cases in which adults claimed to have recovered long-repressed memories of abuse, usually by their father. Similarly, there have been numerous cases accusing child-care workers of sexual abuse of their young charges. In many of these situations strong evidence emerged that the child had been induced to give damning testimony by leading and suggestive questioning tactics (Ceci and Bruck).

Services to victims and witnesses customarily include crisis counseling (that is, short-term help with emotional difficulties), practical assistance, such as help in locating a new place to live, obtaining pregnancy tests and tests for sexually transmitted diseases, changing locks and repairing windows, and/or filing a criminal complaint. Referrals might be made to other social service agencies, such as welfare offices, and for psychiatric treatment. In addition, there has been a proliferation of shelters where women who are victims of abuse may find refuge and support. Some programs will transport a victim to the courtroom where the assailant’s hearing or trial will be held, thus allowing the victim to become familiar with the setting beforehand. That defense witnesses do not usually have the advantage of this strategy is deplored by some, but usually is regarded by those aiding victims as a justified attempt to counterbalance the procedural advantages said to be enjoyed by defendants.

A survey published in 1999 found that nearly eight out of ten persons in the United States reported that they were very or somewhat satisfied with the services they received from victimassistance programs. The major complaints involved slipshod operating methods and poor follow-through. A typical criticism was this: ‘‘They had me fill out forms and I never received any feedback. When I contacted them again they had me fill out the same old forms and nothing happened’’ (Davis, Lurigio, and Skogan (1999), p. 112).

In 1997, Congress passed a law permitting money in the federal Crime Victims Fund to be allocated to pilot programs that can help those injured by white-collar crimes, although the victims themselves cannot receive direct financial aid. Ironically, most of the money that goes into the fund is derived from fines paid by whitecollar criminals.

Coordination of the network of victim service agencies is done by the National Organization of Victim Assistance, headquartered in Washington, D.C. A federal agency, the National Center for Victims of Crime, provides a web site detailing developments in the field and a computerized list of some twenty thousand federal and state victim-related statutes. The center also has created a database of approximately ten thousand court decisions dealing with crime victims and a roster of attorneys who handle civil cases for victims.

Victims of Rape

The professional literature came to label the consequences of being a rape victim in medical terms, as rape trauma syndrome. Diagnosis of such a condition—later extended to other forms of victimization and formalized in medical annals as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD—would come to play a significant role in some court cases. Defense attorneys might argue, for instance, that a person suffering from such a syndrome was no longer able to think rationally and therefore should not be held fully, if at all, responsible for, say, the murder or maiming of the perpetrator, even if the retaliatory act came a considerable time after the original offense. A severely battered woman would stand a decent chance of avoiding charges or being declared not guilty even though she had killed her husband while he was asleep and many hours after she had been mercilessly beaten, as she often was. Opponents of such outcomes complained that however abhorrent, wife-battering is not a death penalty offense.

Victim Responsibility

The victim movement has given rise to a complicated issue that fundamentally rests upon an irresolvable question: Do human beings have free will or are their actions determined by immutable forces? Mental health counselors understandably work to relieve victims—especially victims of sexual assaults—of their common belief that in some way they were responsible for what happened to them. Tension exists between the insistence that the perpetrator alone bears full responsibility for his behavior and the victim’s indulgence in self-blame. The difficulty becomes manifest when the offender adopts the same posture as the victim. He is not responsible either: it was an abusive father, faulty schooling, a slum upbringing, a brain malfunction, or some other predisposing factor beyond his control that led him to do what he did. A 1999 New Yorker cartoon epitomized the situation, showing a woman testifying in court: ‘‘I know he cheated on me because of his childhood abuse,’’ she says, ‘‘but I shot him because of mine.’’

The most public manifestation of this issue surfaced when Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to explain the matter of her husband’s infidelity. Her husband had to learn to take responsibility for his sexual waywardness, she declared in an interview, but at the same time she said that his behavior was the result of ‘‘abuse’’ as a child, apparently ‘‘abuse’’ growing out of ‘‘terrible conflict’’ between his mother and grandmother. ‘‘He was so young, barely four, when he was scarred by abuse,’’ Mrs. Clinton said, adding that a psychiatrist had told her that being placed in the midst of conflict between two women ‘‘is the worst possible situation’’ for a boy because of his desire to please them both. Her husband’s behavior, Mrs. Clinton said, was a ‘‘sin of weakness’’ rather than one of ‘‘malice.’’

Criticism of Mrs. Clinton’s statement was widespread, indicating, perhaps, public saturation with the tendency to excuse so much current waywardness by labeling it as an outcome of earlier victimization or deprivation. A New York Times columnist pointed out that Mrs. Clinton had blamed her husband’s sexual adventures on two women who adored him and, now deceased, could no longer defend themselves. The columnist also noted that the president’s wife had done precisely what she deplored, placed her husband in the middle of a conflict between defending her position and defending his mother and grandmother. The president agreed publicly with what his wife said and at the same time exonerated his mother and grandmother for any role in his sexual waywardness.

Criminological Theory and Crime Victims

Two major criminological theories often are used to interpret crime victimization. Lifestyle theories postulate that certain work and leisure patterns are more highly associated with crime victimization than others. Lifestyles are said to be influenced by three major considerations: the social roles that people play; their position in the social structure; and decisions about desirable behaviors (Hindelang, Gottfredson, and Garofalo). Thus, a woman working a job that ends in the early hours of the day may feel constrained financially to use public transportation and to walk several lonely blocks to her apartment because she cannot afford a taxi; she is more likely to become a crime victim than the woman riding in a taxi.

Routine activities concepts state that criminal offenses are related to the nature of everyday patterns of social existence. When most adults in a neighborhood are working, for instance, there is a greater likelihood that youngsters with increased freedom from adult supervision will get into trouble. So, too, houses unoccupied during the day make much more inviting targets than those with people at home or with neighbors who make it their business to be aware of what is occurring on the street (Cohen and Felson).

Rescuing Victims: Good Samaritans

The blatant failure of persons to provide help for victims of crime when they might readily do so occasionally thrusts the issue of Good Samaritan laws into the headlines. Such laws, present in virtually all European countries (except England) but found in fewer than a handful of American states, mandate punishment for persons who, when they safely can, do not take action to assist a person being victimized. It would not be a crime in any but a few American states if an Olympic swimmer, sunning himself on the beach, felt too lazy to rescue a drowning infant a few feet away. Nor does anyone need to warn a blind man if he walks by and unknowingly heads toward a steep cliff a few yards away (Geis).

Particular attention focused in 1997 on the paparazzi who snapped pictures after the carcrash death of Princess Diana. Under French law the photographers could be accused of a criminal offense for failing to provide assistance to a person in need. Good Samaritan laws, such as those in France, take their name from the biblical parable of the Samaritan (Luke 10:29–36).

An early New York appellate court decision, Zelenko v. Gimbel Bros. (158 Misc. 904), captures the nature of the American approach to aiding victims in distress. A woman had collapsed in Gimbel’s department store and was carried to the store infirmary and left there unattended for several hours. When she died her heirs sued the store and recovered. The court noted that the store and its employees owed the woman ‘‘no duty at all’’ and ‘‘could have let her be and die.’’ Had they done so they would have avoided liability. Responsibility came into play only because of the store’s ‘‘meddling in matters in which legally it had no concern.’’

The absence in the United States of Good Samaritan statutes is traced to the nation’s philosophy of individualism, that nobody should be responsible for anybody but themselves. But there are those who believe that such laws underline the fact that citizens are intertwined and should be compelled to help crime victims if for no other reason than their own future need of such assistance.


At a reunion held in 1997 in the nation’s capital to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the work of the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, James Vorenberg, the commission’s director, said that the development that the group had most failed to anticipate was the subsequent surge of concern with crime victims.

Considerations that led to the striking increase in emphasis on crime victims include the broad campaign to empower those who were not being dealt with satisfactorily, among them minorities, women, gays, and the disabled. In addition, support of victim initiatives carried a great number of political pluses: few could oppose aiding victims, except in terms of cost, and those who did would appear cold-blooded and uncaring.

Once launched, the victim’s movement inevitably built up a constituency that developed a strong personal vested interest in seeing its expansion: Crisis center workers, victimology scholars, and, of course, victims and potential crime victims. The movement has provided benefits for a great number of people who otherwise might have gone neglected. It has influenced the operation of the criminal justice system, sometimes for better, sometimes for the worse, with that judgment depending on the observer’s political preferences. Most importantly, the renewed focus on crime victims has tilted the balance of the scales of justice more toward equity and fairness to all those who participate in and are effected by Western systems of criminal justice.


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