The the 1985 United Nations Declaration of Basic

The term ‘victim’ has various
definitions, but perhaps the most commonly accepted definition is from the 1985
United Nations Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime
and Abuse of Power. This defines victims as “persons who individually or
collectively, have suffered harm…through acts or omissions that are in
violation of criminal laws.” This essay begins by evaluating the concept of a
victim and explores other definitions of what being a victim means. It then
explains how victim surveys attempt to define a victim before comparing the
historical role of victims within the criminal justice system with their
current role. This essay also looks at the way in which different
criminological approaches explain the concept of a victim. Finally, this essay
shall conclude that there are many ways to conceptualise a ‘victim’ and there
is still much debate over the extent to which victims play a role in criminal
justice.

 

To begin, crime can be defined as
‘behaviour that is prohibited by criminal law’ (Carrabine, 2009). Whilst this
definition is accurate, it tells us little about the process of defining acts
as criminal and thus does not explain how individuals come to be identified as
victims or how the concept of a victim is constructed (Goodey, 2005). Furthermore,
another problem is that this common-sense definition does not recognise victims
of non-criminal activities, such as environmental crimes, and so the definition
of a ‘victim’ is confined to a select group of people (Newburn,
2017).

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In addition, this particular definition is made further restrictive as it
overlooks the process of secondary victimisation, whereby victims are treated
so poorly by the criminal justice system that it is akin to being re-victimised
(Newburn, 2017). This means that it fails to recognise
the increased victim status of these individuals and does not fully explain the
concept of what it means to be a victim.

 

Another definition is set out by Perkins
(1975:5) who argues that crime is “any social harm defined and punishable by
law,” thus meaning that victims are those that experience this social harm. In
contrast to this, Quinney (1972:314) argues that the concept of the victim is
wholly subjective and dependent on our perception of the world as our
conceptions are both ‘optional’ and ‘discretionary.’ This suggests that the
concept of a victim cannot possibly be quantified as it is dependent on
personal opinion.

 

Yet, the ‘victim’ is a product of
social construction as it confers a status and assigns a role to those that are
labelled. For example, connotations of vulnerability and powerlessness spring
to mind when contemplating the concept of a victim (Muncie, 2004). These are rather popular terms to use
when considering victims, as supported by Christie (1986) who argues that the
‘ideal’ victim is someone who incites sympathy as they are seen as weak in
relation to the offender e.g. female victims. Whereas, non-ideal victims such
as homeless people, do not receive this sympathetic response as they have less
desirable characteristics (Newburn, 2017). This is supported
by Altheide (2001), who found that people associate the word ‘victim’ with innocence
and helplessness. Furthermore, evidence suggests that these ‘ideal’ victims are
more likely to attract both media attention and public concern (Davies, 2007). This evidence suggests
that sometimes newspaper headlines will clearly imply that certain victims are
more deserving of a victim status than others (Altheide, 2001). This shows that
the concept of a victim is dependent on the desirability of individual’s
personal characteristics and how much public sympathy they can gain.

 

A further point worth discussing is the existence of a
hierarchy of victims, where victims are awarded more attention if they fit into
this ‘ideal’ image of a victim (Newburn, 2017). This is supported by Carrabine (2009),
who found that some victim’s experiences are taken more seriously than others depending
on how innocent they are perceived to be. Yet, it is important to note that
these labels of ‘offender’ and ‘victim’ are not simple indicators of a person’s
character. For example, not all victims are completely innocent as they might
also be offenders and vice versa (Dignan, 2005). This shows that the concept of a
victim as being someone who is blameless is not always accurate.

 

When considering the concept of a
victim, it is useful to look at victim surveys and how they seek to identify crime
victims. Victim surveys are used to measure crime in a way that gives an
informed understanding of the impact that crime has on its victims (Bradford, 2011). However, a
limitation of victim surveys is their inability to identify ‘hidden crimes’ where
there is no discernible victim (MacDonald, 2002). On the other hand, victim surveys can
be seen in a more positive light when considering victim’s roles as they enable
victims to share their personal experiences. In support, Dignan (2005) argues
that victim surveys can be important in increasing the visibility of victims.

 

Historically, the role of victims
within criminal justice used to be fairly extensive. This is because crimes
were considered to be a private matter between the offender and the victim, and
so the victim was responsible for bringing a case against the offender (Carrabine, 2009). This idea is
substantiated by Kearon & Godfrey (2007), as they argue that victims played
a key role in the justice process and without their participation, many crimes
would have gone unrecorded. In contrast to this, Dignan (2005:63) argues that
victims have played a marginal role in criminal justice until fairly recently,
he states that the approach to victims of crime was characterised by ‘neglect’
and ‘insensitive and harsh treatment.’ This statement suggests that victims
were not viewed as being particularly important during this time and thus may
not have played a substantial role.

 

Currently, victims are vital in
the process of initiating criminal justice, yet they are usually confined to
the areas of reporting crime and giving evidence in trials. This is despite the
fact that most crimes come to police attention through victims and are solved
by information obtained by these victims (Carrabine, 2009). This begs us to consider whether victims
should play a larger role in criminal justice than they currently do so. In
light of this, Carrabine (2009) argues that victims’ involvement in decision
making remains prohibited, suggesting that victims do not play a particularly
large role in criminal justice.

 

Furthermore, Carrabine (2009) argues
that opportunities for victims to discuss their experience of victimisation are
limited. However, this statement is disproved by the proposal of ‘victim impact
statements.’ This refers to the opportunity given to victims to make a
statement detailing their experience of crime. These statements must be
considered by the court as part of the evidence given prior to sentencing for
guilty offenders (Newburn, 2017). This suggests that perhaps victims
play a rather important role in criminal justice as they have the ability to
impact on the sentence that an offender receives.

 

Finally, this essay considers how
different approaches to criminology attempt to define the concept of a victim. The
positivist approach conforms to common-sense definitions of a ‘victim’ as they
believe that victims are readily identifiable (Muncie, 2004). One view of
characterising victims is set out by Von Hentig (1967:450), who asserts that
victims have ‘crime provocative’ functions and can be identified in terms of
victim proneness. On the other hand, critical criminologist Dignan (2005:35)
argues that the concept of a victim is ‘contested.’ This shows that they
acknowledge the issues that occur when trying to define who a victim is.

 

In conclusion, the concept of the
victim is highly disputed yet most definitions tend to agree on the basic fact
that a victim is someone who has been negatively impacted by crime. In terms of
the role of victims, there are those who believe that historically this role
was more extensive whereas others argue that it is only in recent times that
victims have come to be recognised as being highly important.

 

 

 

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