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Each year millions of individuals throughout the world experience ranging degrees of physical, psychological, and financial affliction due to the criminal conduct of others, private organizations, and governments. Since the inception of criminology, the victim of crime has been integral in the service of justice; yet, no single element in criminology has been more neglected than the victim.
The 7th United Nations Congress, held in Milan (1985; UN, 1999), ratified the Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power, declaring "victims (are) persons who, individually or collectively, have suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or substantial impairment of their fundamental rights, through acts or omissions that are in violation of criminal laws, including those laws proscribing criminal abuse of power.” Further, “A person may be considered a victim, regardless of whether the perpetrator is identified, apprehended, prosecuted or convicted and regardless of the familial relationship between the perpetrator and the victim”. The term "victim" also includes, where appropriate, the immediate family or dependants of the direct victim and persons who have suffered harm in intervening to assist victims in distress or to prevent victimization (Bachrach, 2000).
In the delivery of absolute justice, primary concerns are that of restoring justice to the victims and communities in the aftermath of a crime, and striking a fair balance between the rights of victims and the accused. In order to do so, more efforts must be made to extensively and accurately study the victim. In response to these and related concerns, a separate branch of criminology was conceived to address the victims of crime. Victimology is the systematic study of the victim as a social factor of crime (Doerner & Lab, 2011).
The study of victims of crime constitutes the study of the victim’s personality, behavior, immediate surrounding and more importantly, the relationship between the victim and criminal, as well as the role of the victim in the crime. For instance, a victim study may investigate the effects of a crime on the victim’s personality, or the obligations of the State to protect and compensate the victim. By rephrasing the principal question to ask, “what factors contributed to the crime being committed?”, victimology shifts the emphasis from a primary focus on the offender to a consideration of all the circumstances and participants involved in a crime committed. In doing so, one absolves a victim of any self-inflicted notions of responsibility in an offender’s decision to commit a crime. Instead, the victim is acknowledge as playing a significant role in an offender’s criminal thinking and execution of the crime itself. For example, prior to committing the crime, a serial rapist may decide to act only once he identifies a victim who possess the characteristics that satisfies his desires and mitigates the risk of committing the crime.
After a crime is committed, the victim faces a number of key stages in the criminal justice process (Wemmers, 2009):
During court proceedings, the victim is likely to take the stand and at this stage, be rendered a victim for the second time. In order to protect victims against this, some countries (such as Greece) will not prosecute certain crimes (e.g., minor physical assault on another human being) unless the victim consents to the prosecution process. In addition, the media are barred from entering the courtroom. In serious cases the judge may also order the police to protect the victim from any acts of revenge or infliction of fear.
Fear of crime and its relationship to actual victimization is an important issue in victimology (Sutton et al., 2011). Factors such as the victim’s vulnerability, previous victimization, the role of the media, and lifestyle and behavior altered by fear (which in turn may forestall future victimization) are integral in understanding the dynamics in the relationship between crime and victim behavior.
Research shows that women are more fearful of crime than men, and that fear of crime increases dramatically with age (Shafer et al., 2004); however, these findings are inconsistent with the actual demographic rates of victimization. Adolescents and young adults are more likely than adults and the elderly to become victims of violent crimes, but the rate of crime against all age groups has fallen. For instance, in the 1990s, victimization rates throughout Europe were at their highest point, but have since dropped dramatically (Jaquier & Fisher, 2009).
Overall, it is important to understand the role of victims as a separate yet parallel construct to the perpetration of crime. We also need to recognize the importance of studying victims and the numerous hardships they can experience as they proceed through the criminal justice system.
A deeper understanding of these kinds of issues could lead to a more psychologically and ethically sound criminal justice system, which would advocate for a more appropriate treatment of victims.
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