Who Are the Victims?

Kim Workman

When Verna McFelin founded Pillars over 25 years ago, no one recognised that the children of prisoners were victims of crime – ten times more likely to end up in prison, than the children of non-prisoners. Social services made no special provision for the children, who today number around 23,000. Verna changed that conversation through her advocacy for the rights of children, and developing best practice to prevent inter-generational offending.

…Last week, 700 people met to discuss criminal justice reform. Public servants, criminal justice professionals, gang members, victims, ex-prisoners, police and corrections officials, academics and politicians. The discussions were diverse, and covered a range of perspectives. But when Jayne Crothall whose daughter was murdered in 1993 took the floor it became instant headlines. It was a heart-rending story of brutality. In her view, victims had been ‘frozen out’ of the Summit. The media made headlines of her concerns, but in doing so failed to inform the public that three of the Justice Minister’s Justice Advisory Group had a special expertise in victims’ interests, that a special session on victim’s issues had been facilitated by the Chief Victim’s Adviser Dr Kim McGregor at the Summit, and that two teenagers had testified about the impact of domestic violence on their mother. In addition, every prisoner who spoke, described horrendous physical and sexual abuse suffered as children.

When Jayne’s comments were reinforced by National’s Justice spokesperson Mark Mitchell, news release, who claimed that “Andrew Little’s attitude showed he was firmly on the side of offenders and didn’t want to know about victims of crime,” it was game over. As they say in the media, ‘what bleeds, leads”. There was no mention in the media that Jayne had met with her daughter’s murderer to help him through his healing journey. That part of the story didn’t fit their purpose.

I don’t blame Mark Mitchell for playing the ‘victims’ vs ‘offenders’ game – It is a political tactic that has served successive governments over the last thirty years, it is a critical part of the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric – but it needs to stop.

…[From] 2000…Two things happened. First, instead of addressing victim’s needs, politicians shifted public attention to victims’ rights, promising to ‘correct the balance between victim’s rights and offender’s rights’. It resulted in in a massive increase in punitive legislation which reduced the rights of offenders, reduced the availability of services to prisoners, but did almost nothing to meet the underlying needs of victims.

Second, it focused public attention on the victims of serious violent crime, the 100 or so homicides that occur annually, introducing a strong retributive tone to the debate, and co-opting statements made by individual victims of serious crime as if they represented the views of “all” crime victims. Both then and now, victim’s views on sentencing and punishment are as varied as that of any other cross-section of the general public. Anger and its manifestations are normal responses to violent crime, but are not necessarily tied to the desire to retaliate. Victims may experience anger as their initial impulse, but after the initial shock has passed, victims’ emotions and reactions may vary considerably – from physical retaliation to withdrawal, to efforts to prevent future harm, to forgiveness of the offender.”

Meanwhile, the work of Victims Support and its support of around 70,000 victims annually, went unacknowledged. With eighty percent of its funding coming from government, it was not in a position to argue against the growing ideological shift.

A simplistic picture emerged. Victims we were told, were ‘good people’; who have suffered at the hands of ‘bad people’. This idea then expanded to the proposition that individuals and organisations who supported victims were comprised of good people, and those who worked with offenders, either implicitly condoned criminal activity, or had an investment in the status quo.

…This tendency to over-simplify seems to me to be a tactic to avoid responsibility for the care of others. While we may accept that a child in state care is usually a victim of abuse and ill treatment, by the time they reach the age of 12 or 13, we change their labels – they become young offenders, and we no longer feel any continuing responsibility for their care.

…There was a second conversation at the Summit which was equally fraught. Many Māori wanted to discuss the over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system, not only as offenders but as victims – but they wanted to have that discussion amongst themselves. Andrew Little, wisely agreed to hold two further conferences, one for crime victims, and one for Māori, acknowledging Māori must lead the changes to the criminal justice system.

Māori have a higher risk of victimisation across all offence types and Māori women especially so. A 2009 survey showed that overall, 47 percent of Māori were victims of crime, compared with 37 percent of pākehā. Māori were more likely to be victimised multiple times (4.3 incidents per victim compared with 2.7 for pākehā victims). Eight percent of Māori women experienced sexual victimisation – twice as much as that experienced by all New Zealand women (4 percent). Eighteen percent of Māori women who had a partner were victimised at least once, compared with 5 percent of all pākehā.

A number of risk factors present in the Māori population contribute to this risk, such as having a young population and living in the most socially disordered or economically deprived areas. Like other disadvantaged populations, a majority of offences against Māori were not reported to the Police and a large proportion of Māori were unable to name any community service that was available for victims.

The more difficult issue, is the extent to which Māori have been victims not of crime, but of the criminal justice system. Kelvin Davis, on ‘The Nation’ last Saturday, acknowledged that personal and systemic bias was contributing to the criminal justice system.

This is an excerpt from a presentation given by Dr Kim Workman, 30 August 2018, at the Pillars Fundraising Breakfast, Christchurch. You can read the full piece here.

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