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Distinguishing Victims And Offenders, The Emergence Of Victim Concerns, National Crime Victimization Survey (ncvs)

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.

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 likeli-hood 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.


Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law