Violent Crime and Victim Compensation: Implications for Social Justice

By Smith, Hayden P. | Violence and Victims, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Violent Crime and Victim Compensation: Implications for Social Justice


Smith, Hayden P., Violence and Victims


Restorative justice offers several innovative methods designed to heal the injury that the offender may have caused to the victim. One of these innovative methods is victim compensation, a form of income redistribution designed to redistribute wealth from offenders to victims of crime. Restitution, particularly through the Victim of Crime Act (VOCA), is a needs-based form of justice designed to assist the most needy victims of violent crime. Recent studies suggest that while state-level compensation programs may target poor, young, African American men, compensation at the national level tends to be received more by older, White women who experienced domestic violence. The author suggests that this disparity between state and local resource distribution in the allocation of victim compensation is a reflection of the ideological differences between the established theoretical frameworks of liberalism and radical feminism.

Keywords: victim compensation; Victim of Crime Act (VOCA); restitution; social justice models

The topic of this article is the social justice implications of victim compensation funding within the United States. This article examines the increasingly accepted theory of restorative justice and discusses the integral component of victim compensation. The main forms of compensation that are currently being offered to victims are explored with reference to their inherent strengths and weaknesses. Civil litigation, social welfare programs, and private insurance are described as effective only in cases where victims meet specific criteria. As such, a large number of victims must rely on federal/ state victim funds.

Next, a brief history of federal/state victim funding is provided leading up to the Victim of Crime Act (VOCA). We discuss two recent studies of VOCA fund dissemination practices. In the first study, Newmark and Schaffer (2003) discovered that compensation in the state of Maryland was directed primarily at young, African American male victims. In the second study, Newmark, Bonderman, Smith, and Liner (2003) found that compensation at the national level was directed more towards older. White female victims. We examine two social justice frameworks, liberalism (Rawls, 1971, 1993) and radical feminism, as explanations of this disparity, and propose that a liberal framework is a more appropriate model for allocating victim compensation.

RESTORATIVE JUSTICE

The criminal justice system in the United States considers unlawful acts to be crimes against the state rather than crimes against other individuals and society (Siegel, 1992). Critics state that this relegates the victim to being a spectator of the criminal justice system, where their needs are often unmet or ignored (Meyer, 1998; Zehr & Mika, 1998). Restorative justice, an increasingly accepted theory in criminology, offers innovative methods designed to repair the injury the offender caused to the victim, the victim's family, and society as a whole. Restorative justice is considered a distributive or needs-based form of justice as the emphasis is placed on the needs of the victim rather than the nature of the offense or characteristics of the offender (Sullivan & Tifft, 2001). Although restorative justice contains many interesting components, this article focuses on crime victim restitution.

During the fiscal years of 1986 to 2003, the Office for Victims of Crime distributed over $1 billion in VOCA grant funds alone (Office for Victims of Crime [OVC], 2004). Victim compensation funds have continued to grow at a rapid rate. In 1975, $4 million were distributed through the federal government's programs, and by 1998 this number had risen to $430 million (Marion, 1995). While this large amount of money is aimed at reducing the loss suffered by victims of crime, few researchers have discussed the social justice ramifications associated with the distribution of these funds. We aim to fill this void by first examining the variety of resources available to victims of crime, with particular emphasis on the federal and state victim compensation program, VOCA. …

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