Early explorations into victimisation and explanations as to why people are victimised centred not on the behaviour of the offender, but on the behaviour of the victim. Whilst these early explanations have been challenged and to some extent discredited during the last 50 years, critically examine why these early theories still govern some influence in public, political and media understanding of the processes of victimisation.
Victimology is a scientific discipline which studies empirically the phenomena and causal relationships related to victimisations, including events leading to the victimisation, the victim’s experience, its aftermath and the actions taken by society in response to these victimisations (Dussich, 2006, p.118). In that sense, victimology is a wider field of study that uses various tools and techniques to understand the relationship between crime and victimisation, such as victimisation surveys. These techniques help policy makers understand the backgrounds of problems and formulate their responses to such problems.
Victimisation theories focus on the place of the victim within the criminology discourse. Benjamin Mendelsohn was the first criminologist to use the word ‘victimology’ in his 1956 article “A New Branch of Bio-Psycho-Social Science, Victimology” (Dussich, 2006, p.116), although there were criminologists before him who had referred to victimology.
Despite the small but significant contribution of victimisation theories in the early 20th century, even until the early 1970s, crime was usually analysed from the perspective of the accused and victimology rarely figured in such analysis (Dietrich, 2008, p.1). However, these early theories had an impact on the development of policies and practices within the criminal justice system. In turn, victimisation theories were also impacted by critical criminology and evolved in response to such criticism.
Early victimisation theories still continue to influence discourse within criminology and continue to impact criminal justice policies and practices. This paper examines the premise of PAGE 10 the early victimisation theories and the continuing effect of these theories on law and policy. The paper first discusses the early victimisation theories and the critical responses to these theories, in particular, the victim precipitation theory. Thereafter, the paper examines the continuing impact of the victimisation approach in law and policy responses to crime. The paper argues that early victimisation theories, have played an important role in development of law and policy responses, irrespective of the critical response to the theories. At this point, it is important to note that victimology itself involves different approaches- penal, general and human rights. However, this paper only focusses on the penal approach.
Hentig was one of the early criminologists who spoke about the interrelationship between victim and crime. His contention was that at times victims did attribute or contribute in some way to their victimisation. He focussed on the more vulnerable groups of victims such as women, older people, children or mentally challenged persons, whose contribution to their victimisation arose from their own inability to control social or other factors that made them more vulnerable to crime (Fisher & Lab, 2010, pp.338-9). Hentig posited a victim precipitation approach that was later followed by Mendelsohn, whose approach was to posit degrees of victim culpability beginning with victims who were completely innocent of any attribution to their victimisation to victims who could be considered as completely responsible for their victimisation (Fisher & Lab, 2010, p.339). Schafer took Hentig and Mendelsohn’s work further and combining these two approaches, created a typology of victim precipitation. This involved three categories: victims with no responsibility (biologically, socially, politically weak); victims with some responsibility (provocative); and victims with complete responsibility, i.e., self-victimising (Fisher & Lab, 2010, p.339).
The early victimologists contributed to criminology by putting the focus on the victims of a crime. This discourse was missing in criminology earlier because the focus was usually only on the offender. In that sense, Hentig, Mendelsohn and others were pioneers and they created PAGE 10 a space for victimology within criminology. However, by focussing too much on the role of the victims in their own victimisation, they inadvertently led to victim blaming. Criminologists who were influenced by the victimisation theories and in particular by the victim precipitation approach carried out surveys to create a better empirical understanding of how victims participated in victimisation. Notable among these is Wolfgang’s (1958) survey of US police homicide records. He was able to demonstrate how 26 per cent of Philadelphia homicides between 1948 to 1952, were initiated by victim’s violent behaviour. Taking cognisance of race, gender, age, habits (alcoholism), etc, Wolfgang was able to show evidence of victim precipitation in crimes (Wolfgang, 1958).
This was an important report and it helped in shaping policy and reform within the criminal justice system. For instance, within criminal justice, provocation has come to be recognised as a defence to homicide and other crimes in many jurisdictions around the world. Provocation here may be seen as ‘victim precipitation’ as posited by Mendelsohn and Hentig. Wolfgang himself stressed upon the need “of defense counsel, prosecuting attorney, and subsequently the court, to determine whether such provocation was sufficient either to reduce or to eliminate culpability altogether” (Wolfgang, 1958, p.7). In the UK, ‘provocation’ (now replaced by ‘loss of control’ by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009) is a valid defence for murder. Notable cases include, R v Duffy,  1 All ER 932 and R v Thornton,  1 WLR 1174. Such cases also led to development of jurisprudence of ‘battered woman syndrome’, where the offender, that is the woman suffering from abuse, is seen as the actual victim of the crime perpetrated by the murder victim seen as the actual offender who invited his own victimisation. There is a growing body of jurisprudence in Common law jurisdictions including New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the US, where courts and juries have allowed defence attorneys to use this as a mitigating factor in murder cases involving domestic PAGE 10 violence. Thus, we see here the continuing influence of the early victimisation theories, particularly, victim precipitation in policy and jurisprudence responses to certain crimes.
Dietrich (2008, p.2) says that in an ideal world, a victim would be completely innocent of any contribution to his or her victimisation. However, in a real world, this is a rarity. He says:
With it being understood that the ideal victim and suspect are a rarity, victimologists have studied how individuals become victims and why. This endeavour not only shifted the focus, but it became a feeding ground for animosity on the part of victims and the victim’s rights movement, as they felt that this research was shifting blame from the suspect and placing it on the shoulders of the victim (Dietrich, 2008, p.2).
The criticism levelled against victimisation theories and in particular, the victim precipitation theory stem from the fact that these theories do tend to allow blame shifting from the offender to the victim. This leads to role reversal at times between the actual victims and offenders. In no crime has this approach been more problematic than in cases or rape and sexual assault. Amir (1967) sparked a controversy in the debate surrounding victim precipitation in rape cases by making statements such as the following:
The notion of negligent and reckless behaviour on the part of the victim is as important to understanding the offence as is the appearance of these types of behaviour in the offender. It does not make any offender innocent but allows us to consider some of these men, at least, less guilty and leads us to consider that the victim is perhaps also responsible for what happened to her” (Amir, 1967, p.502).
Needless to say, this paper created a undeserved perception for victim precipitation theory for being responsible for victim blaming (Muncie & Wilson, 2013, p.110). It came in for a lot of criticism for shifting the blame of rape upon the victim (Simpson, 1989, p.611). A practical PAGE 10 implication of this approach was seen in the Ipswich rape trial (R v Allen) where the trial judge commented that the case was a tragedy for the defendant and the girl was responsible for contributory negligence in her own rape by hitchhiking alone at night.
Some very strong criticisms against earlier victimology has come from feminist criminology theorists such as Carol Smart, who criticised orthodox as well as radical criminology for overlooking female criminality and victimisation (Ugwudike, 2015, p.142). Feminist criminology also made a conscious and deliberate attempt at countering victim precipitation theory, in context of rape. In general feminist critiques have been directed at criminology in general (for ignoring the female experience as a victim and criminal), and victimology in particular (for stereotyping female victims as precipitators in rape and sexual assault).
Other theoretical criticisms against earlier victimology theories have come from critical criminology. This perspective seeks to bring attention on the crimes committed by those in powerful positions, as they argue that traditional criminology focusses only on the crimes committed by the lower classes. In context of victimology, they argue that the crimes committed by the powerful (eg. big corporations) leads to far greater and impactful victimisation, but gets ignored by victimisation theories (Ugwudike, 2015, p.171).
Critial criminology also led to a general appreciation within criminology and criminal justice studies that victimisation is worth studying and that the study of victimisation would have to be broadened to include more approaches. Accordingly, ‘Lifestyle exposure theory’ and ‘Routine activities theory’ were also evolved. Both theories took a diversion from the victim precipitation theory, in the sense that they made a deliberate move against the perception of positive contribution of victims to their own victimisation. Both theories continued with the predominant theme of victim precipitation, in that these focussed on the role of the victim in their victimisation. The difference between lifestyle and routine activities theory on the one hand and the victim precipitation theory on the other, is that the former focusses on the PAGE 10 passive contribution of the victim and the latter was more fixated on the active contribution of the victim (Fisher & Lab, 2010, p.341).
We see therefore, the evolving nature of penal victimology and how it has responded to criticisms by involving different approaches. As mentioned earlier, the major problem with the earlier approach (victim precipitation) is that it shifted the blame onto the victim of the crime. In some cases, this approach has been useful in developing defences for those accused in serious crimes. However, this approach has been difficult in the context of rape and sexual offences as it institutionalises the ‘victim asked for it’ response. However, the theory has actually indirectly highlighted the institutionalisation of such responses and this has led to reforms in rape laws in many states.
Muncie & Wilson (2013, p.110) say that victimology has developed a more macro and global perspective since the time it was first propounded by leading criminologists and they credit the works of feminists, who threw light on female victimisation and the development of social surveys, which led to a greater understanding of the place of victims in criminal justice discourse. The benefits of this approach to victims can be seen in change in policies and practices that are used to ameliorate the position of victims. This is the new dimension of victimology and although expensive, it is gaining ground. Thus, establishment of victim assistance programs, referrals, legal aid, victim compensation, are all important aids in victimisation. Within the legal process, allowing of victim impact statements in trials is seen increasingly across jurisdictions at the time of sentencing of the offender (Anderson, 2015, pp.55-58). To a great extent, these developments are positive manifestations of the latter victimisation theories that have evolved from the earlier theories. These victimisation theories are general or human rights oriented and larger in perspective than the penal victimology approach. However, the early theories, particularly victim precipitation, is still influential. Greer (2007) PAGE 10 points out the influence of victim precipitation in the news media and how some victims are idealised and others are not, creating what is called as ‘hierarchy of victimisation’. Disturbingly, this hierarchy of victimisation affects and is reinforced by both media and official discourses (Greer, 2007, p.22). Tellingly, Greer uses the missing children cases to demonstrate how, race, class and ethnicity can dominate media coverage of the same events and how ideal and not so ideal victims may be ranged in a hierarchy. This can be related to the earlier victimisation theories of victim precipitation wherein the perception that the victim somehow contributed to his own victimisation in some way. Davis, Francis & Greer (2007, p.13) explain that ‘visible victims’, that is those victims of crime that have come into public arena, due to their interactions with the police, have potential to impact the policy and political process. Davis (2007) argues that most victims remain invisible. Even for those victims who are ‘visible’, secondary victimisation occurs within criminal justice system. This secondary victimisation is institutionalised and to a great extent stereotyping the victims (found in early victim precipitation also), is responsible. Blaming the victim for the crime, especially in rape cases is unfortunately common. This is also institutionalised. But the good that has come from this perception is the change in law and policy as a response to this stereotyping. So for example in rape trials, UK’s Sexual Offences Act 2003, implemented in 2004, has gone a long way to correct these problems in the criminal justice system and protect the dignity of the victims of rape. One important change under the law is that rape victims cannot be asked questions related to their part sexual history during the rape trial. This change is due to the rising concerns for the high attrition rates in rape trials. One factor responsible for these higher rates was found to be the ‘she asked for it’ perception that is almost institutionalised. Thus, the influence of the early theories can be seen in both positive as well as negative manner. PAGE 10 It is easier for public, media and policy makers to shirk responsibility individually and collectively if the blame is shifted to the victim itself. Moreover, policy makers can respond with harsher measures and responses and justify it on the basis of victimology. One example of this can be seen in the post James Bulger murder trial that led to the abolishing of the presumption of doli incapax, which provides that a child of 10 to 13 years of age is capable of committing a criminal offence. For these reasons, victimology provides a strong base for both shirking societal responsibility for the crimes and harsher responses by the policy makers. The early victimisation theories are important because they pioneered victim-centric discourse within the field of criminology and led to certain changes in the criminal justice system as well as other policies and practices. Some of the early theories, in particular, the victim precipitation theory, came under a lot of criticism for shifting the blame onto the victim of the crime. This led to the further refinements in the victimisation theories. The early victimisation theories, including the victim precipitation theory continues to exercise influence in policy and practice. This influence is both positive (defences in murder trials) as well as negative (hierarchy of victims). However, this has also led to changes in policies and reforms within the criminal justice system that have taken into consideration and responded to victimology and the criticisms levelled against it. In conclusion, it is reiterated that the early victimology theory continues to be relevant today. It still exercises impact on law and policy responses to crimes.
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