This module is a resource for lecturers  


Topic one - Understanding the concept of victims of crime and a short history of victimology


Victims of crime have long been neglected within the context of criminal justice proceedings that prioritize bringing perpetrators to justice. This changed, to some extent, in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement brought about far-reaching political, legal and social changes in many areas of life. Among other developments, this led to increased attention to the role of victims in the context of both social and criminal policy. Moreover, and in parallel, the study of victimology emerged as a scientific field, complementing the study of crime and criminology. A brief overview of the historical developments of victimology as a discipline is useful to understanding the complexity of achieving justice for victims in contemporary contexts .

Victimology emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, when criminologists, including Hans von Henting, Benjamin Mendelsohn, and Henri Ellenberger, examined the rapports between victims and offenders and emphasized that both were connected in a reciprocal relationship. However, this early scholarly work did not focus on the needs and rights of victims but rather on the question of how victims contribute to their own victimization. Early criminologists explored, for instance, how reckless or careless behaviour could attract the attention of robbers or thieves and make it easier for them to carry out a criminal act. In his book The Criminal and his Victim: Studies in the Sociobiology of Crime, Hans von Henting (1948) attempted to identify the characteristics of a typical "victim", i.e. characteristics that could be viewed as effectively increasing the victimization risk of that person. While this approach may seem out of place today, as an example of "victim blaming" (i.e. holding the victim of a crime or wrongful act entirely or partially responsible for the harm that occurred to them), von Henting nevertheless made a noteworthy contribution to criminology by emphasizing and demonstrating the importance of the victim in what Mendelsohn (1956) later called the "penal couple" of the victim and the offender. Early victimologists understood that one must take interest in victims to properly and comprehensively study the offender.

From the 1970s onwards, the focus shifted towards exploring approaches to prevent victimization, with an increasing interest in, and recognition of, the multitudinous forms of harm and adversity experienced by victims. In fact, contemporary victimology recognizes that victims require effective responses concerning reparation, restitution, having a say in their case, and that they are in need of dedicated victim support services and legal aid (Kirchhoff, 2010; Wemmers, 2012, 2017). This notion was further accentuated by the contemporaneous rise of cognate professional fields such as psychology and social work that have contributed to an increased awareness that victims require timely, supportive and non-stigmatizing support services. Furthermore, as mentioned, the rise of the victims' rights movement was influenced by the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s with the emphasis on drawing public attention to marginalized populations and questioning unjust policies of the government. In particular, the development of the victims' rights movement was directly influenced by: the rising crime rates in the 1960s; the feminist movement's attention to the issue of violence against women; early victim compensation programmes; and political activism by victims.

In 1973, Israel Drapkin organized the first International Symposium on Victimology, providing practitioners, scholars, researchers and students with an international forum to discuss and focus on issues relating to victims and the development of victimology as a discipline. Following the Symposium, the World Society for Victimology was established, in 1979, as a non-governmental organization with the purpose of advancing victimological research and practice, encourage interdisciplinary and comparative work as well as the cooperation between international, national and regional agencies and groups concerned with victims' rights. Several other international entities have since been established to address the core issues relating to victims of crime, including service provider networks such as Victim Support Europe. In 2018, planning commenced to establish Victim Support Asia.

Despite these important developments in victimology, and our growing understanding of victims and their needs, there is still considerable disparity across jurisdictions regarding the recognition, and respect of victims' rights. Moreover, the existence of effective support services available to victims varies widely. This variability in responses available to victims is the product of a broad range of social, cultural, historical, economic and legal forces.

Recognizing the importance of setting minimum standards in the delivery of justice for victims, the United Nations General Assembly in 1985 adopted the Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice For Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power (hereafter referred to as United Nations 1985 Declaration), marking an important step towards a unified approach towards addressing justice for victims of crime and abuse of power.

As part of the United Nations standards and norms, the United Nations 1985 Declaration sets an important basis for recognizing that victims have rights and needs that require legislative responses, the establishment of support, services, and efforts to ensure their protection from further harm and, as far as is possible, a right to redress. Moreover, the United Nations 1985 Declaration sets out a definition of the term "victim", as mentioned in the Key Terms.

The fact that the United Nations 1985 Declaration contains a definition is important, in itself, because a definition contained in a document adopted by the General Assembly may assist in unifying diverse practices across United Nations Member States. Furthermore, the definition is also a milestone because of the comprehensive and far-reaching way that it defines who is a "victim" of crime. The definition combines the violation of criminal law with a wide range of harms an individual may have suffered as a result of that crime. Furthermore, the United Nations 1985 Declaration clarifies that victims are to be recognized and afforded victims' rights, irrespective of whether the offender has been identified, apprehended, prosecuted, or convicted. The definition of victims of crime under the United Nations 1985 Declaration also includes individuals who suffered indirectly, such as the immediate family or dependants of the direct victim and any other person who have suffered harm as a result of intervening to assist direct victims.

Since the adoption of the United Nations Declaration (1985), several international and regional efforts have been made towards ensuring that victims' rights are respected and recognized. At the European level, regional binding standards have been adopted both at the level of the Council of Europe and of the European Union. At the national level, South Africa, for instance, has published a service charter for victims of crime, i.e. a consolidation of the present legal framework relating to the rights and services provided to victims of crime in the South African context.

Next: Topic two - The impact of crime, including trauma
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