Criminal neglect: no justice beyond criminal justice - Introduction

The last 25 years have seen considerable innovation and reform for victims of crime, but these provisions do nothing to help 96% of victims. These are the people whose offenders are not detected and whose cases are not processed through the criminal justice system.

According to the British Crime Survey (BCS)(1) around half of all victims do not report their crime to the police. Although many of these people are victims of relatively minor offences, a substantial number have experienced extremely serious and distressing crimes but are too anxious to inform the authorities. In particular, this would include victims of racially motivated violence and other harassment, domestic violence and serious sexual crimes.

People may not report crimes for a range of reasons. Many are worried about repercussions from the offender, or are too distressed or embarrassed to talk about what has happened. Others may want help, but do not know how to get it without invoking the whole process of criminal law. Telephone helplines, including the Victim Supportline, provide one route for getting support, but achieving widespread awareness of this kind of service is difficult.

Only 3% of all crimes ever reach the criminal justice process, according to government statistics.(2) Even when crimes are reported, only a minority are solved; for example, only 12% of property crimes are ever detected and less than one in three crimes of violence.(3) Fortunately, a higher proportion of serious violent crimes do result in detection and later prosecution.

When a crime is solved, the victim can benefit from a range of improvements within the criminal justice system which include better information, compensation and referral for support. But if a crime is not solved, the only specific services available for crime victims are Victim Support and the possibility of criminal injuries compensation for the small number (under 1%)(4) of victims who are seriously injured as a result of crime.

96% of victims therefore receive few or any dedicated services, other than those provided by, or through, Victim Support and other support groups.

Victim Support is itself facing a crisis. An increasing proportion of funding for the organisation is targeted towards supporting witnesses and those victims of crime whose offenders have been detected. This is true in both the traditional systems of criminal justice and the new development of restorative justice in the community.

Crime can ruin lives. Not only do people suffer direct physical and financial losses, but they can also experience severe and often long-lasting emotional and psychological trauma. All too often this damage is exacerbated by insensitive treatment and a lack of understanding of their needs by the agencies with which they come into contact. This is generally known as secondary victimisation.

In recent years there has been a raft of new developments aimed at tackling secondary victimisation of victims, and witnesses - but the issue is that these measures are exclusively contained within the criminal justice system. This is good news for the 3% of crime victims who enter the system - but what about those who do not?

What other rights should crime victims have?

A fundamental principle is that crime affects the whole person. Health and quality of life can suffer; money is needed to pay for the consequences, both direct and indirect; and support is needed by most people to cope with the often overwhelming emotions that are a natural consequence of crime. Some people find talking to friends helpful, but more and more are finding that support from someone independent gives them freedom to express the sometimes strong and contradictory feelings that need to be aired.

Specialist services for victims are not, however, enough. It is just as important that people and organisations in other spheres of life provide a sympathetic response. Children need understanding and consideration from their school, and workers from their employers. Most people need time away from work, not only to deal with their feelings, but to sort out the many practical problems relating to injury or loss. Organisations accommodate sickness among employees, but few if any have policies and procedures to allow staff to deal with being the victim of a crime.

Many victims of crime will seek medical help for injuries or other medical symptoms (usually from GPs or accident & emergency departments). But most medical practitioners are not trained in the and the significance of situations is rarely recognised. People may get medical attention and treatment, but few receive recognition or understanding to help them to cope. Referrals can be made to Victim Support, but in spite of efforts to promote our service, only a tiny proportion of our referrals come from medical practitioners.

Some victims of crime are unlikely to recover without leaving the home where a crime has taken place. This may sometimes be recognised in cases of domestic or other violence, but is unlikely to be considered in connection with intimidation or harassment despite the fact that repeated threats or offences frequently undermine a person's ability to feel safe or confident in their home. The same will be true for many people who have experienced property crimes, including repeated burglaries.

Crime victims only receive compensation for serious injuries, or when an offender has been detected and has the means to pay. Many other people suffer long-term hardship as a result of theft or because they have a reduced ability to work. Many of these people cannot afford insurance, particularly if they live in areas where crime is a high risk. Landlords may not give priority to repairs or improvements in security. Social security payments, for those who qualify, are normally made as loans, and are often not available at all.

Specialist services for victims of crime will always be needed to provide appropriate support and effective access to whatever rights and services are available in the community. But they can never be sufficient on their own. It is essential that all public services recognise their shared responsibility for helping people to cope with the damaging experience of crime. The whole community has a responsibility for dealing with crime and everyone has the right to know that they will not face the problem alone.

Improvements for victims within criminal justice are a great achievement, but they can only prevent secondary victimisation within the criminal justice system. The only way to eliminate this problem is for all agencies dealing with social provision to work together with those in criminal justice to provide joined-up services, tailored to the needs of victims of crime.

Official agencies should not be able to turn a blind eye to the needs of victims, and Victim Support is calling for action to bring this injustice to an end.

References

1. The BCS measures crimes against people living in private households in England and Wales. It has been conducted nine times by the Home Office since 1982.
2. Kershaw et al, 2000 and Home Office, 2000
3. Home Office, 2000
4. The 2000 BCS (Kershaw et al, 2000) shows that there were 14,716,000 crimes against adults in England and Wales in 1999. The 1999/2000 Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority annual report records that 39,700 awards were made (out of 78,000 applications) for violent crimes in England, Wales and Scotland against adults and children. On this basis, the percentage of all crime victims who receive state compensation is well below 1%.

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