Australian Institute of Criminology

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Introduction

The victim plays an important role in a criminal offence. In particular, it is often their presence or absence that determines whether a crime has taken place. Australian states and territories use differing criteria in their definitions of what constitutes a victim; however most agree on the following two principles. That a victim is:

  • an individual or organisation who has been harmed, either physical or psychologically, by or during the course of a criminal offence; or
  • an individual whose property has been stolen, damaged or destroyed (see Victims of Crime Act 1994 (ACT) s 2A; Victim of Crime Act 2001 (SA) part 1 s 4; Victims Rights and Support Act 2013 (NSW) part 1 s 3).

This definition is deliberately broad in so that it encompasses both primary and secondary victims of crime. A secondary victim is an individual who was not directly involved in the crime but who has suffered vicarious trauma as a result. Examples may include family members of a murder victim or customers who were present during a robbery, but who themselves were not robbed or targeted by the offender.

Academics in this area have often stated that victims are overlooked in the study of crime; their role neglected in favour of examinations of the offender and punitive sanctions enacted by the state (Karmen 2004). However, this may not be entirely accurate. While it is true that attention on the study of victims of crime, or victimology, has fluctuated since the 1940s, shifting in response to changes in the social and public perceptions of crime and victimisation (Karmen 2004; O’Connell 2008), certain aspects or types of victimisation have received particular attention. For example, the Australian media has recently given much attention to:

  • violence against women;
  • the physical and psychological effects of assault (‘one punch can kill’); and
  • the impact of child sexual abuse.

It is perhaps more accurate to say that the experiences of victims and the study of victimology, particularly in Australia, has been limited in its scope and depth. It is apparent that certain crimes and particular types of victims have received the most attention, while the experiences of others, such as secondary victims or male victims of rape have not been as thoroughly explored (Ellis 2002). Karmen’s (2004) review of the literature in the United States identifies more than 25 potentially ‘overlooked’ types of victims.

The academic and media focus on particular types of victims has limited the understanding of victimisation more generally. While not always the case, most studies have examined the impact of specific crimes in isolation, for example, victims of sexual assault or of armed robbery. This had led to a ‘siloing’ of victimisation experiences, with the impact and nature of victimisation only being considered for each, individual crime type. This is potentially detrimental to the understanding of victimisation as it lacks a holistic perspective. The risk is then that services and legislation, based on research that focuses on a small minority or particular type of victim, will not be able to be broadened to the wider population.

In contrast, over the past 20 years large-scale projects such as the International Crime Victimisation Survey (see van Dijk, van Kesteren & Smit 2007), the Crime Survey for England and Wales (Office for National Statistics 2015) and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Crime Victimisation Survey (ABS 2015) have provided useful data on victims across a wide variety of crime types. However, while these studies are excellent sources of information on the volume of victimisation, they are by their nature, incapable of providing the more detailed information necessary to understand the nature and impact of victimisation.

The Database of Victimisation Experiences (DoVE) has been designed to enable researchers to more closely examine the experiences of victims of violent crime. It is made up of 730 de-identified psychological evaluations of victims of violent crime in New South Wales (NSW). This rich qualitative information was supplied as part of a reciprocal research arrangement between the AIC and the Victim Services NSW.

While the use of qualitative analysis is common in criminology, the creation of a qualitative database is less so. Although the project is only in its early stages it is hoped that as the methodologies are refined it can be expanded to include similar data from other jurisdictions in an effort to build a more comprehensive picture of victimisation in Australia.