Crime and victimisation: The big picture

Rebecca Roberts
Saturday, 1 July 2006

Victims are heralded as valuable players in the arena of criminal justice, with more rights, a greater 'voice', and improved support services. The government aims to rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of victims and away from offenders. In the face of a perceived crisis in the criminal justice system it is now usual for the Home Office to roll out 'new' victim-centred policies to quell criticism.

In his recent speech to the Parole Board, John Reid said: 'This rebalancing of the system back in favour of victims, builds upon the recent announcement by the Lord Chancellor to allow victims, or their advocates, the opportunity to sum up the families' views during the sentencing of murderers. But I want to go further in ensuring that victims or their representatives get a greater say about the release of offenders back into the community. Their voice must be heard more clearly.' The message is clear: the Government wants to be seen to be on the side of victims, and appear to be taking meaningful steps to meet their needs.

Measures of crime

Contemporary debates present a narrow and distorted picture about crime and often ignores the relationship between victimisation and social (in)justice. Government statistics dominate the construction of victimological knowledge and there is a focus on criminal justice interventions as the key point of service delivery. This combination has led to an unambitious policy programme that offers little to the overwhelming majority of people harmed by crime.

A great deal of time, money and effort is invested in collecting and analysing data. Each year Crime in England and Wales (CEW) draws together findings from the British Crime Survey (BCS) and police recorded crime (RC), the results of which are hotly debated and used to assess whether crime is rising or falling and whether the government is succeeding or failing. Criminal Statistics provides an overview of formal proceedings such as police cautions and court proceedings. Government targets are then measured in terms of crime levels (as measured by the BCS) and offences brought to justice. The prevailing focus is on those deemed 'criminal' rather than on victims.

The BCS and RC are often presented by politicians and government as the true measure of all crime, with the BCS held up as the more reliable of the two. Despite efforts to improve both methods of data collection, these sources are primarily about measuring and counting crime trends (yet even this is limited) and counting discrete events rather than uncovering indepth information and details about victimisation. They tell us little about the contexts and nature of harms experienced, and the impact of these events. Both measures, individually and in combination, provide only limited information on the types of crime that they measure, to the exclusion of many others.

Theft and violence

Government data is regarded as the gold standard and it is against this that policy priorities are set and targets realised. However, data in the annual CEW report is presented and promoted in a way that reflects the government's aim to reduce particular types of crime and improve the efficiency of the system. Data on a comparable subset of crime categories is extracted from BCS and compared with a similar set from RC to illustrate and measure trends in offences in the following categories: vandalism; burglary; vehicle-related theft; bicycle theft; theft from the person; robbery; common assault; and wounding. CEW focuses primarily on this comparable subset. When looking at the comparable subset categories we see a specific construction of crime based on some types of theft and violence against the person. This contributes to a dominant view of what crime is, and by implication, who the victims are. Yet it doesn't uncover levels of violence in the home, crimes against children, sexual offences, or fraud - or many other harms which may not necessarily be commonly conceived of as crime, but could be equally (or even more) harmful.

There are many other statistically reliable sources that indicate broader victimisation, but these have barely impinged upon the public and political debate. Such sources could include the International Crime and Victims Survey, Commercial Victimisation Survey, health and safety figures, accident and emergency statistics, and the British Transport Police. We can also look to organisations working directly with victims or the public, and academics and researchers in areas such as domestic violence, race hate crime, violence against children, and sexual violence.

The criminal justice system deals with only a tiny proportion of all crimes and victims. Other data has encouraged a growing understanding that victimisation extends beyond the confines of criminal justice and is influenced and compounded by broader social and economic issues. However, the tendency is to acknowledge this but then immediately revert back to recommending that the criminal justice system should take the lead in 'delivering' for victims. For example, the 2003 Home Office document A New Deal for Victims and Witnesses claims to want to focus on the support needs of victims, and explains that victims require a 'diverse ecology' of services. But in practice, the focus reverts to enlisting victims and witnesses to participate in court processes.

Talking tough

Reforms tend to concentrate on victims within the criminal justice system, in terms of rights-based approaches and procedural reform. Numerous strategy and policy documents since 1997 have a common thread of toughening up criminal justice interventions and clawing back offenders' rights, justified by claims that this will 'rebalance the system' in favour of victims. This often involves adjusting criminal justice procedures to ensure an increased number of convictions.

Critics have highlighted concerns that this kind of 'rebalancing' risks injustices to defendants with 'little tangible benefit in terms of rights and remedies for victims and communities'. Such criticism has gone unheeded, counting for little in comparison with the political popularity of 'the victim'. Victims now have political weight, as Paul Rock highlights elsewhere in this issue. As Basia Spalek explains, victims' needs have been 'co-opted by government in order to pursue broader goals linked to the development and operation of more efficient systems of criminal justice, acting as disciplinary mechanisms on agencies of the criminal justice system'.

Whatever one thinks about the politicisation of victims or their use by government, the focus on victims' rights, and specifically their role in the court process, is very limited in scope considering the large number of people who are harmed by crime but do not come into contact with the criminal justice system. Lord Birt gives a very sketchy estimate of 130 million offences committed annually which, when compared to the government's target of bringing 1.25 million offences to justice each year, suggests that many crimes are not dealt with. While numbers of offences cannot be easily translated into aggregate numbers of victims, this does illustrate the scale of the so-called 'justice gap'. Beyond this are the many people who experience harms that are not popularly conceived of as crime. The criminal justice system is ill-equipped and uninterested in dealing with so many people, and it is unrealistic to expect such a system to do so.

Instead of getting to grips with these broader and deeper questions, contemporary policy involves tinkering with criminal justice processes. There is an inability to engage with broader evidence, a lack of expertise within government, and a failure of political will. The Home Office thus resorts to consulting 'popular' traumatised victims to the exclusion of others. This concentration on a narrow type of victimisation and on victims as witnesses terminates in debates about what should be done to offenders. In such a context it seems almost logical that services are accessed through criminal justice agencies to ensure that victims make it through the criminal justice processes to guarantee a conviction.

Wider support is delegated to an under-funded voluntary sector - a passing acknowledgement of the need for broad services which is not matched by financial commitment or clear strategy. Future plans revolve around the commitment to offer improved and more diverse services to victims, but with no spending commitment and a lack of clarity about how broad these services will be, what the role of public and private sector should be, or how to reduce the incidence of and vulnerability to harms. Home Office commitment to the broader needs of victims is questionable, and it is doubtful that the necessary cross-departmental strategy will emerge.

The criminal justice goals of bringing offences to justice and improving efficiency are likely to take precedence over broader approaches to more adequately assess and understand the wide range of harms within society. Indeed, a broader strategy might only be realised if leadership of a cross-governmental strategy were located outside the Home Office, with its focus on criminal justice. This would be a precondition for the emergence of a sound evidence base as well as the appropriate funding to create practical, victim-focused policies.

Beyond the Home Office

Richard Garside argues that despite the government's acknowledgement of the relationship between social injustice, crime and victimisation, the focus remains on 'offenders' and ignores broader social and economic contexts. He proposes a 'victim-focused' approach which would 'actively eschew criminal justice mechanisms in favour of a broad-based drive to tackle poverty and inequality at a systematic level and in a systematic way'. Fundamentally, he says, this would mean acknowledging that social justice can only truly be achieved if society's social and economic arrangements are themselves organised justly.


Jackson JD (2003) 'Justice for all: putting victims at the heart of criminal justice?' Journal of Law and Society 30/2
Spalek B (2005) Crime Victims: Theory, policy and practice New York: Palgrave Macmillan
Birt J (2000) A New Vision for the Criminal Justice System
Hillyard P, Pantazis C, Tombs S, Gordon D and Dorling D (2006) Criminal Obsessions: Why harm matters more than crime London: Crime and Society Foundation
Garside R (2006) 'Crime and social justice' in Shimson B (ed) Social Justice: Criminal Justice London: The Smith Institute