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What do victims of crime really really want?

Penelope Gibbs
20 May 2020

The government is very concerned by the drop in criminal prosecutions and appear to blame the police. But it is not clear that victims want more criminal prosecutions, and that’s one of the reasons why the police’s hands are tied. Victims are increasingly not co-operating with the police. In 2014/15, victims did “not support action” in 8.7% of cases . Last year, it was 22.9%. Police make over 200,000 arrests for domestic abuse per year, but over half alleged victims will not engage. Cases like that of Caroline Flack (where prosecution continued despite her boyfriend, the alleged victim, refusing to give evidence) are in fact rare. Police don’t usually follow up crimes if the victim is unwilling. Apart from anything, its hard to gather evidence and prove the case beyond reasonable doubt.

Why are more and more victims of crime turning away from the criminal justice system? Unfortunately no-one knows because these are the victims without a voice. There is no research analysing this trend. The only crime (I think) which has inspired much attention is rape. A number of studies have looked at why victims don’t report to the police at all. In an excellent recent study, Oona Brooks-Hay probed the motivation of Scottish victims who did report. The reasons were complex – some suffered trauma and thought reporting would help them “move on”. For others, reporting to the police was a way of validating their experience.

Some of the victims Oona interviewed were angry at their perpetrator and wanted them to be exposed and publicly shamed, but very few wanted punishment and retribution: “I want something good to come out of this and I want him not to do this again and I want him to get the help he needs, because that would make me feel better . . . I didn’t have big thing that I felt I had to have him locked up” (Jen). Some interviewees felt a sense of moral responsibility to report – to protect others. “I don’t have a burning desire to punish him. Punishing him isn’t gonna change what happened to me. What I have is a burning desire is knowing that he’s not doing that to other people . . . I would like to know that my voice might help somebody else”. (Shazia)

Given these motivations and that, in some cases, the perpetrator was not convicted, its not surprising Oona concludes there is an “aspiration-reality gap” – between the victims’ expectations and “the reality of criminal justice processes and outcomes, and between their aspiration to validate their experiences and protect others by “doing the right thing,” and the ability of the criminal justice system to respond in kind”.

Can our adversarial, highly punitive criminal justice system ever meet victims’ needs? There are many studies which suggest victims want rehabilitation and restoration rather than punishment. And most victims want desperately to move on…as quickly as possible.

There is a government consultation out on a new victims’ code. Its a great articulation of victims’ rights to information about the crime and the accused. But, important though that is, is that victims’ primary concern? Will more victims report crime and pursue their case if they know they have “the right to be told the outcome of the case and, if the defendant is convicted, be given an explanation of the sentence”. They should, but I doubt such rights, even framed in a victims’ law, will persuade more victims to engage.

People think that if they were a victim, they would want their day in court and for the (severe) punishment to fit the crime. But when they themselves become the victim, it is not that simple. Until we create a criminal justice system which meets the real needs and desires of victims, rather than what we think they want, prosecution rates are likely to stay stubbornly low.