Traditions in Social Science and Victim Policy

By Sales, Bruce; Gottfredson, Michael | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1990 | Go to article overview
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Traditions in Social Science and Victim Policy


Sales, Bruce, Gottfredson, Michael, Violence and Victims


In public policy discussions about criminal justice, it has been fashionable recently to refer to victims as the "forgotten part" of the criminal justice system. There have been repeated allegations that the procedural guarantees afforded those accused of crime tip the balance too far in favor of consideration of offenders' rights. Similarly, there have been frequent claims that the victims of crimes have been insufficiently consulted in the preparation of the State's case and during the sentencing phase of the process. The often heard complaint is that the victim is victimized twice - once by the offender and then again by the criminal justice process.

As a result, there has been a flurry of activity in the policy arena focused on crime victims. Examples of this attention are numerous and include such diverse policies as "victim rights" movements (giving the victim increased roles during the pretrial and trial phases and during sentencing), sentencing schemes promoting restitution, calls for harsher punishments for drunk drivers, programs directed at spouse and child abuse prevention and counseling, and consideration of expansion of the excuse for self-defense for homicide to include a "battered spouse defense."

A corresponding increase in attention to victims has been taking place in the social and behavioral sciences. One hallmark of this social scientific attention to victim issues has been its strong international perspective; a second is the effort to enhance the quality of the empirical basis for policy evaluations. As a result, some of the empirical studies done by social scientists during the past decade provide excellent examples of the potentially positive relationship between social scientific research and public policy. During the last decade, for example, some of the largest, most sophisticated social surveys in the United States and in Europe have focused on the victims of crime, seeking to estimate probabilities of victimization and to uncover correlates of violence and theft victimization (Hindelang, 1976; Hindelang, Gottfredson & Garofalo, 1978; Hough & Mayhew, 1983; Gottfredson, 1984; Hough & Mayhew, 1985). Other scholars have probed the attitudes and values of respondents as these relate to victimization experiences (Garofalo, 1979; Maxfield, 1984) and tracked the experiences of victims through the criminal justice process. The concept of domestic victimization has received some of the most extensive empirical work (Sherman & Berk, 1984).

Systematic study of the factors influencing the probability of victimization have helped shape the crime prevention movement widely adopted by European governments and by Canada. The "opportunity" theories advanced by Mayhew and her colleagues in Britain (Mayhew et al., 1976) were assisted by the development of the British Crime Survey (Hough & Mayhew, 1983). These theories focus directly on the features of targets that make them more or less suitable for criminal victimization and have important policy implications (Clarke, 1983). At the same time, the nationally representative probability samples that provide the basis for the National Crime Survey in the United States helped define the victimized segments of the American population and to question nascent policies focusing on such low-rate groups as the elderly. The recent victimization survey undertaken in Switzerland by Killias (1989) examined not only the distribution of victimization in the Swiss population, but the impact of victimization on the victims as well.

Finally, systematic empirical work on restitution to crime victims began almost as soon as restitution became a popular sentencing option, both in the United States and in Britain (Harland, 1982; 1983). This work indicated quite strongly that the unanticipated consequences of restitutionary schemes might overwhelm their positive virtues. Thus, like other financial penalties, problems arise when the policy confronts the reality of the most common criminal offenders who do not have the resources nor perhaps the commitment to meet restitution obligations.

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