By: Maryann S. White, Ph.D.

Most people would agree that every crime involves at least two parties—the offender and the victim. The focus of our justice system, however, doesn’t necessarily reflect this. We have long studied crime and those who commit it (i.e., criminology), but it wasn’t until more recently that researchers started taking a closer look at the victim.

Victimology, put simply, involves the study of victims of crime. More specifically, this growing field examines crime victims, their characteristics, their relationship with the offender, the effects of crime, and the victim’s role in both their victimization and the criminal justice system.

Like criminology, victimology is a science.

This means that victimologists use the scientific method to conduct studies in order to objectively establish facts about victimization. For example, instead of simply wondering why some people may be more likely to be victimized than others, victimologists collect data that can then be used to empirically answer this and other questions.

A Brief History

Crime and victimization were occurring long before the term victimology was coined. In fact, they were recognized even before the establishment of a formal criminal justice system.

During ancient times, the burden of justice fell on the victim. When a crime was committed (personal or property), it was up to the victim and/or the victim’s family to seek justice.

This was typically done in the form of retaliation, where the punishment was equivalent to the harm the offender caused (“an eye for an eye”).

The victim remained the focus until the Industrial Revolution, when we saw a shift to crimes becoming violations of the state. This shift allowed the state to collect fines and monies, but made the victim secondary. With the victim no longer being seen as the entity harmed by the crime, the crime victim was effectively excluded from the formal aspects of the justice system.

As society continued to become more depersonalized, neighbors no longer knew the people next door, and faces simply blended into crowds. Concern soon shifted from repairing the harm caused to the victim, to dealing with the criminal. What was once more of a victim justice system turned into the criminal justice system.

Now, the victim must call on society to act; there is no more taking matters into one’s own hands. The development of formal police, courts, and correctional systems has reflected an interest in protecting the state and the rights of the accused, leaving the victim largely ignored.

The Victim’s Role

When the study of victims first began, victims were not viewed as innocents who played no role in the harm done to them. In fact, there seemed to be a sort of preoccupation with asking what the victim did to cause their own demise.

During this time, concepts such as victim precipitation, victim facilitation, and victim provocation were developed.

Victim precipitation examines the role that the victim played or the extent to which a victim is responsible for their own victimization. Victim precipitation recognizes that both parties (the victim and the offender) are involved in the incident and that both are likely acting and reacting before, during, and after the crime. This can be problematic, however, when used to blame the victim and disregard the offender’s role.

Victim facilitation occurs when a victim unintentionally makes it easier for an offender to commit a crime. For example, if someone leaves valuables in plain sight in an unlocked vehicle and those valuables are stolen, the victim has facilitated their own victimization. This is not to place blame on the victim, as the offender should not steal, but it certainly made them an easier target. Victim facilitation helps to explain why some may be more likely to be victimized than others, but does not imply blame or responsibility.

Victim provocation, conversely, occurs when the victim does something to incite—or provoke—the criminal act. This concept suggests that without the victim’s behavior or actions, the crime would never have taken place. For example, an armed robber attempts to force a convenience store clerk to give him the money in the register, but the clerk pulls out a gun instead and shoots the robber. In this case, the offender ends up being a victim, but the shooting never would have occurred if he hadn’t attempted to rob the clerk.

A Time of Change

During the mid-1900s, researchers started to look beyond just the role victims played in their own victimization, and started considering the needs of the crime victim. This occurred largely as a result of other social movements at the time. As crime rates were increasing, so too were the number of people harmed by these crimes. The creation of victimization surveys brought the actual number of victims to the forefront, as the extent of unreported victimization was realized.

It was during the women’s movement in the 1960s-1970s that we saw a push for better care and services for female victims, and children were finally acknowledged as victims in need of services. As the civil rights movement created awareness for mistreatment of minorities and advocated against racism and discrimination, these two movements came together to create the victims’ rights movement.

As these ideologies merged, females, minorities, and young persons came together to push forward an agenda that focused on making important changes to the criminal justice system.

Victimology Today

Today, victimologists continue to use official records and victimization surveys to better understand the crime victim, as well as the causes and costs of victimization. In recent years, new laws have been enacted that help increase the rights and benefits of victims, including both core rights for crime victims and amendments to state constitutions.

While there is currently no amendment to the U.S. Constitution providing rights to victims, the Crime Victims’ Rights Act (CVRA), part of the Justice for All Act of 2004, gives victims rights in federal criminal justice proceedings, ways for victims to enforce those rights, and provides victims and prosecutors standing to assert victims’ rights.

 

Maryann S. White, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at Georgetown Gwinnett College. She is also a social science researcher with progressive experience in qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods research where she applies her skills to better understand human behavior.

 


 

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