Victims and Offenders

The conventional responses of criminal justice call for punishment for offenders, sympathy for victims. There are some occasions where the need to assign the roles of offender and victim – one role to the exclusion of the other – distorts the character of what has actually taken place, loses any sense of context and limits the possibility of resolution. It is not always possible to assign the roles at all with any confidence.

In most cases, though, it is straightforward enough to identify the offender and the victim. But what must be resisted is any inclination to assign people to distinct and essential groups – offenders and victims. The terms make sense only in relation to one or more particular incidents (which is not to miss or minimise the pains of sustained abuse, as in the case of domestic violence or racist harassment).

One consequence of a sharp and exclusive distinction is that offenders become ineligible to be victims. The Criminal Injuries Compensation scheme allows that compensation may be reduced or withheld on the basis of the victim’s character as indicated by a criminal record. This has led to remarkable injustices – in particular for some women with trivial previous convictions who have struggled to gain compensation in later life for grave crimes against them. Consider too the claim the proposition that people cannot offend while they are in prison. Yet all manner of crimes are committed in prisons, of course, and to deny the importance of this or victim status to the victims of those crimes is quite unjustifiable. These injustices arise as a direct result of a felt need to make offenders and victims exclusive categories.

There is lots of evidence that offenders are themselves a disproportionately victimised group. The Edinburgh studies of youth transitions and crime are finding that young people with criminal records are significantly more highly victimised than those without. An inquiry by Victim Support (2007) confirmed that young people who have been victims of violence may themselves go on to become violent offenders and that those offend violently may become victims of violence. After all, people whose lifestyles are associated with offending are exposed to considerable risks of victimisation. Homelessness, for example, is associated with offending (in complex ways) and is also as risk marker for being a victim of violence. In many cases, both offenders and victims (especially ‘repeat’ victims are commonly disadvantaged and socially excluded.

There is a strong association between women’s involvement as offenders in the criminal justice system and their experiences of victimisation and the offending behaviour of many women can only be understood in the context of a history of abuse. The same is true of many – probably most – of the young men who commit grave crimes.

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