Crime Victims

views updated

Crime Victims

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) almost twenty-three million Americans over twelve years of age were victims of violent crimes, property crimes, or both, in 2002. The term "victimization" is often used to describe the physical harm victims suffer from assault, rape, or murder, or financial loss due to theft, vandalism, or business corruption. Some 5.3 million crimes in 2002 were violent and 17.5 million were property crimes. Statistics from 1999 when crime rates were slightly higher showed there were 33 violent crime victims and 198 property crime victims for every 1,000 people over the age of twelve. The value of stolen property in 1999 was just less than $15 billion including $4.7 billion from theft and $7 billion in stolen vehicles.

For the first half of the twentieth century, crime victims received little attention in the criminal justice system. After the U.S. Supreme Court strengthened the constitutional rights of defendants in the 1960s, it seemed victims had fewer legal rights than criminals. Some victims became so distressed by the justice process they refused to testify in trials.

During the 1970s a number of states began establishing victim compensation funds to help victims survive the financial losses caused by crimes against them. In the 1980s a growing victims' rights movement brought change to the criminal justice system, and victims had an active role in the prosecution of their offenders. Society also came to believe it had an obligation to provide services to victims and help them recover from the effects of crime. By the early twenty-first century, over ten thousand victim assistance programs existed across the nation. Victims had finally gained significance in the criminal justice process.

Victim rights

For most of history prior to the eighteenth century, the victim was the primary focus of the criminal justice system. The main goal of justice was restitution (compensation or payment for damages) to the victim by the person who committed the offense. The victim, not the government, was responsible for initiating an investigation and played a key role in determining the fate of the defendant. In general, an offender's family had to provide long-term support to the victim or the victim's family. Overall, the victim held distinct rights and had the most power in the criminal justice process.

Not long before the American Revolution (1775–83; a war fought between Great Britain and the American colonies in which the colonies won their independence) emphasis in the American colonial justice system began changing. Crimes were considered offenses against society in general, rather than only against the victim. Crime became less of a personal dispute between the victim and offender as the colonial governments took over the primary responsibility to prosecute crimes. Public prosecutors were appointed and removed the sometimes costly responsibility of victims to pursue trials and seek justice. The new legal system, however, largely removed the victim from the center of the criminal justice process. The state became the system's focal point rather than the victim and any fines owed by defendants were no longer paid to the victims but to the state.

By the time the United States was founded, criminal justice had changed significantly. The Bill of Rights, added to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, provided protection only for defendants in criminal proceedings. Evidence seized illegally could not be used in a trial, defendants had to be advised of their rights upon arrest, and the poor could have legal counsel provided free by the state. No mention of victim rights appeared; victims were simply evidence of a crime.

Women Victims

Though women are victimized by crime much less than men, the character of their victimization is quite different and generates much more fear. Men may have a 42 percent greater chance of becoming crime victims overall, but women experience the violent crimes of rape and sexual assault much more. Statistics indicate some five million women and girls over the age of twelve are victims of violent crime in the United States every year. One out of every six women is a victim of rape or attempted rape at some point in their lives. Some 870,000 rapes occur every year. Women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four are more likely to be raped, with most raped prior to eighteen years of age.

Crimes against women are usually committed by a person they know well—a spouse or former spouse, boyfriend, family member, or friend. These attacks are the hardest to live with due to the personal nature of the crime. Only 16 percent of rapes are committed by strangers; over 30 percent of murders are committed by someone with whom the victim had a close relationship. The same pattern of familiarity follows in other crimes. Between 20 and 50 percent of women experience domestic abuse at least once in their lives. Statistics show that if a woman tries to leave an abusive relationship, it often turns more violent.

Studies have also shown women live with a greater fear of crime, especially rape. As a result, victim legislation often singles out female victims. In 1994 Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) providing federal funding for victim assistance programs directed toward female victims of rape, stalking, domestic abuse, and sexual assault. In 1998 VAWA provided $172 million to women's programs.

The right to sue and bear witness

The minor role of the victim in criminal justice remained largely unchanged through the 1960s. The victim only held the right to report crimes, serve as a witness, and sue in civil court for damages. Of course, first the criminal had to be caught. If the offender was never apprehended, the victim had
no options. As in earlier times when victims had to pay to pursue a civil lawsuit, the twist was that even if the victim won the court case, if the offender had no money there was nothing to collect. This was often the case, especially involving street criminals.

Through a series of studies in the late 1960s, the federal government discovered many victims did not report crimes and others refused to cooperate with police and prosecutors. Victims experienced poor treatment by authorities, long waits for trials, and no transportation or childcare while participating in the criminal justice process. This insensitivity on the part of the criminal justice authorities made victims feel "victimized" all over again. In response to the studies, law enforcement agencies and other criminal justice authorities began promoting victim assistance programs to address the needs of victims. With more victim cooperation came higher conviction rates.

The extreme stress faced by rape victims, who often did not report the crime because of the ordeal of going through the criminal justice system, was finally recognized. In 1975 the first rape crisis center opened in Berkeley, California, to help victims through the legal process.

Victim compensation laws

The financial well-being of victims was the first concern addressed in meeting the needs of crime victims. In the mid- 1960s courts began ordering victim compensation in criminal sentencing. Direct restitution from the criminal to the victim became a condition of probation, mostly in property crimes. Poor offenders, however, often made such compensation impossible. To address this problem, California established the first victims' compensation program in 1965. Throughout the 1970s more state legislatures passed victim compensation laws, which established pools of public funds available to crime victims to ease the losses brought about by crime.

Many believed society owed victims something for their ordeal, so money was put aside from state revenues and penalties assessed against offenders. The funds could be used to pay for lost earnings, medical expenses, funeral expenses, counseling, and property loss or damage. Though payments to individual victims can go up to $25,000, this money is not intended to provide total compensation, but to help victims survive sudden losses.

During the 1970s over forty states made any profits earned from criminals' crimes—such as the publication of a book or selling movie rights—go to their victims. The idea of seizing such funds came from a highly publicized serial murder case in New York City. Convicted murderer David Berkowitz, known as "Son of Sam," was supposed to receive profits from a book about his crimes. In 1977 the New York legislature passed a law to seize any profits related to a convicted criminal's crimes and placed them in a special fund to pay any victims who might sue the criminal for damages. Through these Son of Sam laws, states are able to regulate money made from crimes and encourage victims to sue their attackers.

Congress passed Victims of Crime Act in 1984 setting up a similar fund for federal criminal cases. The act also provides money for state compensation funds using funds from penalties against federal criminals. The government gives states 40 percent of whatever the state paid to crime victims the previous year. In 1996 Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act that increased assistance and compensation to victims of terrorism.

Who qualifies

Each state varies how its funds are applied and who qualifies. For many states only low-income victims are considered; other states allow any victim to apply as long as the individual in no way contributed to the crime, such as picking a fight. Some states only provide payment for those physically injured or to families of victims who were killed. They do not compensate for property losses. For property crimes, victims who have insurance will be compensated through their insurance company. Those who do not have insurance must rely on offenders or their insurance to pay, or in rare cases a state that allows for property loss compensation.

To receive funds, victims or their families must file an application to state officials immediately after the crime occurs, identifying their loss or injuries. Funds are available to help victims even if the criminals are not caught or successfully prosecuted.

Studies at the end of the twentieth century indicated only about 15 percent of victims who report crimes receive compensation, usually those considered the most in need. Those who did not apply probably had strong support from family and friends, while others may not have been aware of the services and money available, especially in the more rural areas.

Victim rights

By 1975 only twenty-three programs existed around the country to provide direct assistance to victims. Through the 1970s, however, victim advocacy groups were quickly gaining membership and attention from state legislatures and the federal government. In 1975 the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) was formed to coordinate the different groups and increase their effectiveness. One of the most successful groups was Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). MADD was founded in 1980 by Candace Lightner, whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver. Other groups included the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, founded in 1978, and Parents of Murdered Children.

In 1982 the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime reported a need for more victims' services beyond compensation programs, so Congress passed the Victim and Witness Protection Act (VWPA). The act protected victims, witnesses, and informants and provided compensation to victims of federal crimes. The federal act served as a model for state victim protection laws. The 1984 Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) provided $150 million to support state compensation funds as well as victim assistance programs. The federal funding programs encouraged the growing number of local victim assistance groups to work with criminal justice agencies.

Victims' bill of rights

The victims' rights movement successfully pushed for legal protections for victims similar to those of defendants. By the twenty-first century every state either passed laws or adopted constitutional amendments to support victims in criminal prosecution. Wisconsin was the first state to establish a bill of rights for victims in 1980, which also provided funding for victim assistance programs. California followed in 1982. Crime victims and victims' rights organizations pushed for all states to protect victims' rights, believing many victims were ignored and even mistreated by criminal justice systems that seemed more focused on protecting the legal rights of defendants.

While victims' bill of rights varied from state to state, they each required that victims be treated with dignity and fairness by police, prosecutors, and other officials as well as provided with protection from threats and harm. Many also required the police to notify victims about the progress of their case, from the investigation phase to when criminals were released from prison, and to inform victims of upcoming court dates such as parole hearings.

In forty-one states, victims have the legal right to attend the trial of their offender. In twenty-two states prosecutors must notify victims of any plea bargains before agreements are reached. In twenty-three states the victim has the right to


Another way victims can play an active role in resolving crimes against them is through a process called victim-offender mediation. In mediation, both the victim and offender must agree to meet and attempt to settle their dispute in a face-to-face manner, under the guidance of a mediator (a neutral party who helps resolve conflicts).

The mediation process predates the modern U.S. criminal justice system and was widely used in ancient times. Native American tribal justice systems have existed for centuries and still used this approach in the late 1990s. Several hundred mediation programs existed in the United States in the early twenty-first century. They can be found in the court system or the offices of sheriffs and prosecutors.

Mediation does require offenders to assume personal responsibility for their actions by admitting to the crime. The goal is to negotiate an agreement concerning the crime, with both parties having the opportunity to tell their stories and discuss what can be done to resolve the issues facing them. If the mediation is successful, the victim and offender write an agreement and sign it. The offender usually agrees to pay some compensation, perform services, or seek counseling. Mediators assign someone from their office to make sure both parties carry out terms of the agreement.

Occasionally, no agreement can be reached through mediation and the case returns to the usual criminal justice process. By this time, however, offenders have already admitted to their crimes as part of the mediation process. In some situations, the criminal justice system may still prosecute the case, even after an agreement is reached.

Mediations of more serious crimes, including murder, do occur though not as often. These cases, however, are more likely to be pursued after criminal prosecution has been completed and are usually conducted within a prison.

Mediation poses some risks to victims. If the offender fails to carry out the terms of the agreement, the victim may feel victimized once again. Most agreements, however, are honored; in these cases victims find their fears decrease while offenders often make positive changes in their lives as well.

speak in a hearing concerning a judge's acceptance of a plea bargain. Victims are also allowed the opportunity to write statements about how the crime affected them and their families. These statements are presented when the offender is sentenced and also at parole hearings. Forty-eight states must notify victims if their offender escapes from prison or a mental health facility.

Congress continued to find ways to increase victim rights while not restricting the rights of defendants. Following the lead of the various states, Congress passed the Crime Control Act and the Victims' Rights and Restitution Act both 1990. The Crime Control Act provided a federal bill of rights for victims of federal crime; the Restitution Act confirmed that victims had a right to compensation and use of federal services offering help to crime victims.

Congress passed other laws such as the Victims of Child Abuse Act of 1990, which provided a wide range of rights and protections for victims and witnesses of abuse; the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which provided domestic violence victims the right to testify at the sentencing and release hearings of their offender. The Violent Crime Control Act also offered counseling and restitution for victims of sexual assault, domestic abuse, and child abuse.

The Mandatory Victims' Restitution Act of 1996 further strengthened the requirements for defendants, including drug defendants in particular, to compensate victims for losses. The Victim Rights Clarification Act of 1997 reaffirmed the right of victims to attend the trials of their offenders.

Supporters or advocates for victims' rights pointed out that federal law protected the rights of victims, but the Constitution protected the rights of defendants. This meant defendants had more protection than victims should a case ever pit victim rights against constitutional rights. In an attempt to increase victim rights, a Victims' Rights Amendment to the Constitution was introduced in the mid-1990s and endorsed by President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001). Following heated debate in Congress in April 2000, however, the amendment was dropped. If crime victims ever do receive protections equivalent to those of crime offenders, the criminal justice system would probably be forced to make major changes.

Protecting victims

Many of the federal acts, beginning with the Victim and Witness Protection Act of 1982, not only recognized a victim's rights but provided protection to those who might feel threatened by the offender. Through these acts the U.S. attorney general had the authority to assist crime victims or witnesses
and their families in relocating to a new place of residence and to provide a new name and new identity. This included state as well as federal witnesses, and these responsibilities were carried by U.S. marshals.

Protection by marshals proved crucial to obtaining testimony from victims and witnesses, especially in organized crime, drug trafficking, and terrorism cases. It also protects victims and witnesses from pressures not to testify, such as bribery and threats of harm. By the early twenty-first century some seven thousand witnesses had been protected or relocated. Each state has similar laws, often leaving protection services to state police instead of U.S. marshals.

The ability to protect victims and witnesses became more difficult in the late 1990s. New computer technology made public and private records much more accessible to those who have the skills to search the Internet and hack into public sites. Witnesses and victims felt much less secure by the early twenty-first century.

Victim advocates

As support for victim rights grew, the role of victim advocates rose in criminal justice systems. Use of victim advocates first began in the 1970s in rape and domestic abuse cases. Advocates are trained to assist with the physical, emotional, and psychological trauma of victims and their families. An advocate advises victims of their rights in the criminal justice process, counsels them during the investigation, prepares them for trial, refers them to social services if needed, acts as a contact for state and local agencies, and provides personal support.

Police will often call an advocate to the scene of a crime, particularly in cases involving sexual assault and domestic abuse. How much a victim participates in the criminal justice process is often influenced by the speed and responsiveness of the police and the amount of sensitivity shown. With advocates assisting the victims and their families, law enforcement and prosecutors can focus on catching criminals and putting them on trial. Advocates establish a relationship of trust with victims and eventually help them return to normal lives.

Advocates assist victims in completing application forms for state compensation programs or to obtain restraining orders to keep abusers away. Advocates can also help victims replace lost documents, provide emergency food, clothing, and cash, temporary housing when needed, and improve security of a home or assist in relocating to another area. The advocate can also help with landlords, doctors, and bosses, as well as retrieve personal property from authorities when it is no longer needed for evidence.

Increased professionalism

Originally, advocates were simply individuals working out of their own personal interest, sometimes through local community organizations. Many were crime victims at one time themselves. For example, female victims of violence have provided counseling for rape and domestic abuse victims at shelters. Early advocates were not connected in any way to the criminal justice system. Eventually, states were able to hire victim advocates through federal funding.

Advocates became more widely available and integrated into the criminal justice system. During the 1990s, training programs and increased educational opportunities became available for advocates. NOVA provided training programs and began establishing standards for advocates.

At times victims have preferred advocates not officially connected to law enforcement agencies, to avoid pressure to prosecute or testify against their offenders. In addition, advocates who were not hired by law enforcement agencies were less likely to share a victim's personal information with authorities if the victim was against it.

In addition to individual victim advocates, other advocacy groups formed including the National Victim Center, Victim Assistance Legal Organization, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Many of these organizations were established by past victims of crime. Besides providing assistance directly to victims, these advocacy organizations also try to influence state and federal legislatures to emphasize the rights of victims. They also seek tougher penalties for crimes and provide public education programs to better inform the public on injustices in the criminal justice systems.

The study of victims

Increased concern over crime victims in the 1970s not only led to victim compensation and assistance programs, but also to studies of victims and their roles in the criminal justice process. These studies formed a new area of criminology called "victimology." Researchers look at the physical, financial, and emotional harm suffered by victims of crime, as well as how victims react—from seeking retaliation against their offenders to trying to get on with their lives. Such research helps shape future policy and programs to assist crime victims.

Victim Statistics

Two major sources for statistics concerning victims are available. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) releases an annual report called the Uniform Crime Report (UCR). The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) conducts an annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). The FBI reports have been produced every year since 1930 and collect information from seventeen thousand law enforcement offices.

The UCR reports on serious crimes including murders, rapes, aggravated assaults, robberies, burglaries, larcenies, and automobile thefts and provides statistics nationally and by state, county, and community. These statistics include only crimes reported to the police. Aside from murder cases, however, information on victims was not collected until the 1990s. The FBI also reports on college campus crime, terrorism, and hate crimes.

Created in 1973, the NCVS collects data from a large sample of the population to estimate how many physical and sexual assaults, robberies, automobile thefts, and other thefts have actually occurred. The survey collects data on victims such as sex, age, race, ethnic affiliation, income, amount of education, and residence. These statistics provide useful information on how certain groups of people are more susceptible to crime. Citizens wishing to minimize their chance of being victimized or victimized a second time, can use these statistics to change their behavior patterns.

The studies also hoped to identify behavior or situations that might put people at higher risk of becoming crime victims. Some were simple: flashing a large wad of money in public could certainly attract a robber. Other studies were controversial or upsetting, such as stating that some females were more likely to be attacked or raped based on the way they dressed. A study concerning murders in Philadelphia found over one-fourth of all murders were caused by the victim in some way—including knowing an offender, as well as drinking alcohol, arguing, or fighting with the offender.

Other studies found that victims might provoke crimes through carelessness, like walking in a dark area at night. Even where a person works, shops, lives, goes to school, or socializes can be factors in a crime. Though many consider it important to determine the role victims play in crime so future attacks can be avoided, it does not remove any degree of responsibility from the criminal.

For More Information


Austern, David. The Crime Victims Handbook: Your Rights and Role in the Criminal Justice System. New York: Viking, 1987.

Belknap, Joanne. The Invisible Woman: Gender, Crime, and Justice. Toronto: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2001.

Elias, Robert. Victims of the System: Crime Victims and Compensation in American Politics and Criminal Justice. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1983.

Gordon, Margaret, and Stephanie Riger. The Female Fear. New York: Free Press, 1989.

Jerin, Robert A., and Laura J. Moriarty. Victims of Crime. Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1998.

Karmen, Andrew. Crime Victims: An Introduction to Victimology. 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001.

Stark, James, and Herman Goldstein. The Rights of Crime Victims. Chicago, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.

Web Sites

"Helping Crime Victims Rebuild Their Lives." The National Center for Victims of Crime. (accessed on August 19, 2004).

National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA). (accessed on August 19, 2004).

U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office for Victims of Crime (OVC). (accessed on August 19, 2004).