This section of Crime Notes focuses on a number of different aspects of victimisation with the initial emphasis on the concept of victimology, the social construction of victims and a range of victim-orientated policies introduced into England and Wales in the 21st century.
Over the past 50 or so years there has been a growth of interest in what Maguire et al. (2006) called the ‘experiences and needs of crime victims’ that has informed debates about ‘the relative rights of victims and offenders, policing policy, crime prevention and court processes’. This change of focus, particularly in the UK, from the offender to the offence and the victim, is significant for how crime impacts on three types of victimisation:
- primary – individual victims
- secondary – people such as family and friends close to the victim
- tertiary – the communities in which victims live.
McAra et al. (2011) note ‘a large body of evidence that demonstrates a close relationship between offending and victimisation’ across four dimensions of descending linkages:
- The strongest linkage is one where ‘many offenders have been victims at an early age’. Offending and victimisation ‘feed off each other in the process of individual development’. This linkage directly challenges the over-differentiated relationship between offender and victim frequently portrayed in the media (the idea that offender and victim are strangers). Roe and Ashe (2008), for example, note that ‘offenders were more likely to be victims of crime than non-offenders’.
- A strong link is one of mutual interaction. People do not set out to offend, but offending occurs through the course of their social interaction. This would include offences such as domestic violence, where victim and offender live together, or street fights outside clubs, where victim and offender may be interchangeable.
- A slightly strong link involves people in the offender’s social circle of friends and acquaintances – offending here results from the accessibility of victims ‘or because they are paying off an old score’.
- The weakest link is where offender and victim are complete strangers, but even here there tends to be some social linkage – they may, for example, work for the same employer or live in the same area.
The concept of victim hierarchies flows from these linkages: Schafer (1977) suggests that victims can be ranked in terms of their culpability, ranging from unrelated victims – the offender was solely responsible for the crime – to provocative victims, where the latter are significantly responsible for a crime occurring. A second hierarchy forms around the idea of the social construction of victims.
The politics of victimisation
Victimisation involves a political agenda – just as some offenders have greater notoriety than others, not all victims are constructed equally. Greer (2007) argues, ‘The definition of who may legitimately claim victim status is profoundly influenced by social divisions including class, race, ethnicity, gender, age and sexuality’. The media both old and increasingly new, are a significant shaper of legitimacy: ‘News reporting of crime is selective and unrepresentative’, not only in terms of what is reported (generally sensational forms of crime), but also in terms of how it is socially constructed.
Reporting of violent crime, for example, focuses on offenders and victims as strangers, which in turn creates the impression of violence as random – anyone is a potential victim – and the ‘intentional acts of evil folk’. This (mis)representative context contributes to the fear of victimisation and to the creation of a chain of events within which victims are located and selectively presented.
Christie (1986), for example, argues that a significant dimension here is the construction of idealised victims: ‘individuals who, when hit by crime, are most readily given the complete and legitimate status of being a victim’. Ideal victims are:
- Respectable – either in terms of their background (middle-class victims come closer to the ideal) or the context of their victimisation (being abducted on their way home from school as opposed to fighting in a night club).
- Innocent – no blame can be attached to the victim (the child tricked by an adult, for example).
- Defenceless – the victim should be physically weaker than the offender.
- Exposed – the elderly or children, for example, are constructed as uniquely vulnerable.
Greer argues that the significance of this typology lies in both who it includes (the weak, defenceless and respectable) and excludes: ‘young men, the homeless, those with drug problems, and others existing on the margins of society’. This is important because ‘victims have taken on an unprecedented significance in media and criminal justice discourses, in the development of crime policy, and in the popular imagination’.
The distinction between deserving and undeserving victims arguably helps to shape government policies towards each. As with the case of 8-year-old murder victim Sarah Payne, ‘Those who acquire the status of ‘ideal victim’ may attract massive levels of media attention, generate collective mourning on a near global scale, and drive significant change to social and criminal justice policy and practice’. The problem with idealised victims, however, is that they attract disproportionate amounts of attention and resources to crimes and victims that, while sensational, are generally unrepresentative of the majority of crimes and victims.
The increased social, cultural and political interest in victims has produced policies designed to provide political representation for victim groups, compensation for victims and practical advice on avoiding and coping with victimisation.
In the early part of the 21st century the Labour government of Tony Blair created the post awarded to Sara Payne, mother of murder victim Sarah Payne, of Victim’s Champion in 2009, with three main responsibilities:
- Listening to concerns of victims and witnesses.
- Representing their views to government officials and in the media.
- Challenging criminal justice agencies to reform practices for victims and witnesses
This post quickly evolved into the role of Victims’ Commissioner in 2010 with a similar remit of representing the views of victim groups, improving services and so forth. The current Commissioner for England and Wales, Baroness Helen Newlove, was appointed in 2023 for a three-year term of office. The current (2024) Victims and Prisoners Bill passing through the UK Parliament attempts to address and strengthen some aspects of the Victims’ Commissioner role, such as requiring named government agencies to “respond to recommendations in the Victims’ Commissioner’s annual report”.
First introduced in 2005 and subsequently updated in 2013 and 2021, the Victim’s Code is “a set of rules that outlines the minimum level of service that victims of crime should receive from criminal justice agencies in England and Wales, such as the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts, and the probation service”. It is monitored and enforced by the Victims’ Commissioner.
In broad terms the Code recommends crime victims are treated with “dignity, respect, and compassion” and that they are supported and protected by agencies such as the police throughout the criminal justice process. It also gives victims a range of rights that include the right to:
- be kept informed about the progress of their case
- apply for compensation
- ask for a review of a decision not to prosecute,
- make a personal statement about the impact a crime has had in court.
The 2021 Code update added further victim entitlements such as being:
- referred to support services
- provided with information on restorative justice,
- given information about the outcome of any appeal.
Financial compensation is available to victims in two main ways:
- Court-awarded: offenders are ordered to pay compensation for things like injury, medical expenses or pain and suffering. This can be limited by what the offender can afford and is not normally ordered if the offender is imprisoned.
- Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme: victims of violence can apply for government compensation designed to ‘express public sympathy for innocent victims of violent crime’.
The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act (2004) introduced a ‘victims’ surcharge’ of £15 on all court-ordered fines, with the resulting fund used to improve services for crime victims. The surcharge was uprated to £26 in 2022 and had been extended to fixed-penalty notices (such as those for speeding) in 2010.
Restitution involves an offender ‘making good’ the harm they have caused to their victim. This might involve offender and victim meeting, under supervision, to discuss how the crime has affected the victim (a form of Restorative Justice) The offender may also recompense their victim in some agreed way – by doing something for them, rather than in monetary terms.
Over the past 50 years government support for victims has been increasingly channelled through charitable organisations such as Victim Support, 75% of its funding in 2009 coming from the Ministry of Justice. The creation of Police and Crime Commissioners in 2011 lead to direct government funding being indirectly channelled through these agencies. Victim Support provides free services such as psychological counselling and information about the role of witnesses in a criminal trial.
Recent policies include the development of risk-avoidance strategies aimed at preventing victimisation and minimising the risk of repeat victimisation. These strategies include:
- target-hardening (advice on making properties more secure)
- crime-mapping designed to increase public awareness of the crimes that occur most frequently in specific areas
- community strategies designed to make ‘street crime’ more difficult. Examples include Alleygate projects, CCTV surveillance and improved street lighting (situational crime prevention). Painter and Farrington’s (1997) study in Stoke-on-Trent, for example, found improved street lighting not only reduced crime rates in an area, it also reduced the fear of crime.