In one of my Criminology modules, we were asked to write a letter to the UK Home Secretary (The Hon. Priti Patel MP). This was only an exercise with no suggestion that we should actually send it, however, with recent developments and the upheaval in the Conservative government, as they attempt to choose a new Prime Minister, several subjects have been at the forefront of the somewhat ugly fight between the two people battling for Number Ten (Lizz Truss and Rishi Sunak). Women’s rights and the suggested opposing trans rights issue has been thrust centre stage. However, whatever side of the argument people are sitting on, one thing that was highlighted was the poor service that women receive when entering the criminal justice system and how not much has changed towards female victims of crime when they report a sexual assault or rape, and the way that the adversarial court system appears to re-victimise women reporting serious sexual offences. This is one reason that the rape conviction rate is so low, in percentage terms, as many victims withdraw from the process for fear of opening fresh wounds while giving evidence in Court, leaving them open to cross examination by lawyers and in some cases, by the alleged perpetrator.
LETTER TO THE HOME SECRETARY:
‘There are serious problems with the way that some victims are treated within the criminal justice system, pointing to deep seated inequalities. Write a letter to the Home Secretary making an argument in support of this statement.
Rt. Hon. Priti Patel MP,
H.M. Home Secretary,
2 Marsham Place,
2nd February 2022.
Dear Madam Home Secretary,
I write to you as a retired police officer, a criminology student and someone with recognised expertise dealing with offences against the person, particularly perpetrated against women.
I was disturbed to see the results of a combined four year enquiry into misconduct at a Metropolitan police station, by the Office of Police Conduct, and the recommendations made therein (BBC, 2022). The article mentioned that you were ‘sickened’ by its contents. I hope that will direct you to address the inequality borne by victims of crime and their treatment within the criminal justice system (CJS). Below, I identify how certain social groups are treated, dependent upon their social and economic status and how they are labelled by the authorities. I will signpost the theory of victimology, a sub-set of criminology, the inclusion of crime survey statistics, and their usefulness and/or limitations when determining policy, the inhumane way that the system still treats rape and sexual assault victims, the inconsistencies of aftercare determined by codes of practice, hopefully soon to be addressed by the new Victims Law (Tapper, 2020), and how community justice may assist in freeing up court space for more serious offences.
Society is not equal; one per cent of the richest people in the United Kingdom own twenty-five per cent of the country’s wealth. Powerful groups and organisations, including the criminal justice system, determine what laws are passed and our place in society is often decided by our gender, ethnicity, nationality and socioeconomic status. The mainstream media also have a part to play in how the public perceive certain demographics, which they often magnify in an attempt to denigrate certain areas of society (Rowe, 2021). These organisations apply labels to different groups thus have the ability to define our behaviour and determine whether they consider it deviant and illegal. Unlike the outdated individual positivist theories of Lombroso (1876) cited in Westmarland (2018) we are not pre-disposed to commit crime based on genetic and physical traits. If we are to accept what the state determines is criminal behaviour, based on its definition of society’s values, those that are perceived as more vulnerable, including ethnic minorities from deprived working class areas are more likely to be treated as deviants and criminals by those in power, creating this judicial imbalance which needs to be addressed (Dimou, 2021).
Madam Home Secretary; I am particularly disturbed at how the criminal justice system still treats certain victims of crime, namely women. Prior to the 1960s, women were often treated as chattels and largely forgotten when legal policies were being shaped and implemented. In the sixties, the criminological theory of victimology emerged. According to Walklate (2016) cited in Bows (2018,p.49), this was an attempt to redress the balance and identify and focus on victims of crime, putting them at the centre of criminological process. Key theories within victimology however, identify where I believe the state is going wrong. In Dimou (2021) three sub-sets of victimology were identified; radical, critical and positivist. While the first two believe that state exploitation and oppression, by those in power, create victims, driven by a lack of equality, leading to a lack of support (radical), and the belief that powerful groups, including the CJS, through the state, have the power to determine who is a victim and who is not worthy of that designation (critical), it is my opinion that the CJS still apply positivist victimology, by deciding who is a ‘real victim’, determined by whether it is believed that the victim has somehow contributed to their own victimhood.
When I joined the police force in 1982, it coincided with the production of the first ever results of the Crime Survey for England and Wales, created a year earlier. With a current annual sample size of 35,000, the survey attempts to identify the level of crime as well as highlighting targeted offences, such as domestic violence and sexual offences, often under reported and considered a ‘dark figure of crime’ (Bows, 2018, p.50). I believe that this is often due to the victim withdrawing their engagement in the legal process or the fear of being re-victimised in court, thus adding secondary victimisation to their primary status (Sellin & Wolfgang, 1964) cited in Bows (2018,p.53). The authorities need to alter the way that victims are viewed, regardless of their background and socioeconomic status, especially when it comes to dealing with sexual and domestic violence. A person has more of a chance of being victimised by the perpetrator and the state if they are categorised as being in the lower age range (16-24), female and/or disabled, from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and unemployed from deprived geographical habitats, according to the Office of National Statistics (Bows, 2018, p.59).
Nearly thirty years ago, the state reformed some offences against the person, to include rape within marriage and rape of a man. As we emerged from the 1980s, your predecessors at the Home Office attempted to implement training updates for police officers dealing with sexual offence victims and re-iterated that United Kingdom police forces should never ‘no crime’ an alleged rape, unless discovered to be a false complaint. Some recent additions should be applauded however; specifically the employment of more female officers and creation of sexual assault referral centres (S.A.R.C.s), humane surroundings within which to report such crimes and collect evidence without pressure to proceed to trial (Kelly, 2000). Unfortunately, as has emerged with the current Metropolitan police misconduct enquiry, it appears that misogynistic and sexist attitudes towards women, by a certain section of the police service (BBC, 2022) and the legal profession, still remain, where outdated ‘rape myths’ are still perpetuated; blaming the victim by magnifying their clothing, drunkenness, behaviour and previous sexual history (Bows, 2018, p.65).
I noted that in 2013, this government enacted a ‘codes of practice for victims of crime’ and a year later expressed a wish to collate the views across the legal system on an annual basis (C.J.J.I., 2015). This was meant to collate information from the whole country in relation to availability and quality of services for victims of crime. While part of the 2015 report praised some elements of victim support, there were many inconsistencies and unacceptable service provision in many areas, often due to the lack of funding from councils and other local authorities. Police forces failed to record certain crimes, thus leaving victims without signposted support. In relation to sexual offences and domestic violence, victims recorded their dismay at the lack of empathy from many areas of the criminal justice system, especially the ‘first contact’, police officers. Information passed to first response officers was incomplete, failing to identify repeat offenders / victims. Domestic abuse victims were not believed or ‘no crimed’ and those suffering mental health episodes were often incarcerated, because of a lack of clinical support. It appears that the most vulnerable, those in socioeconomically deprived areas with low job prospects, from broken families or raised in care are the ones with the most limited or no access to assistance, if it is there at all.
One of the ways that victims feel let down by the CJS is the lack of communication during their ordeal and the backlog of court cases which inevitably draws their anxiety and suffering to an unacceptable level to which many seek to withdraw from the process. Perhaps some of the lesser court cases that help create court blockage could be deferred to a system of community justice. Christie (1977) cited in Irwin-Rogers (2018, p.84) stated that often people are labelled with a criminal record on minor crimes that could be suitably dealt with by community courts that aim to rehabilitate offenders, appease victims and attempt to allow offenders to remain part of the community, not ostracised by it. This would assist with the swifter delivery of justice for the more serious offences in Court and alleviate some of the victim’s anxiety during the legal process, allowing access to victim support more quickly. Karp and Clear (2000) cited in Irwin-Rogers (2018, p.85) stated that any community justice should run on both democratic and egalitarian principles in that the whole community should have a stake in the process and outcome while also dealing with socioeconomic inequality.
In conclusion, there are serious issues with victim treatment within the justice system which is unequal and stressful. With the proposed ‘victims law’ presented to Parliament last year, it is hoped for a speedy process to become Law. In 2019 nearly a quarter of cases were dropped due to victims withdrawing; half of those who proceeded to Court would not do so again because of their experience. (Tapper, 2020). Inequality requires levelling up. There is too much power in too few hands, which often targets the poorest socioeconomic areas and people. Victims services need to be provided and monitored in deprived areas which, according to the C.J.J.I. (2015) is not consistent. The police service requires more regular training when engaging with victims of sexual crime and the misogynistic attitudes have to be eradicated. Finally the crime surveys must include under sixteens and those who live in care to portray an accurate crime victim figure.
Róisín Pitman (Miss)
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