15 January 2008

The Victim-Victimizer Duality

In a surprisingly large number of cases, the profile of people most likely to commit crimes and the profile of people most likely to be victims of crimes, is similar.

Young, underclass black men who were members of gangs committed a disproportionate share of the murders that took place at the peak of the drug war a couple of decades ago, and were also the typical victims of those murders. Less narrowly, the vast majority of murders are intraracial.

Mentally ill prisoners are both disproportionately likely to break prison rules by fighting and to be victims of prison assaults.

The severely mentally ill are both disproportionately represented in prison populations, and victimized by others at much higher rates than the general population.

The homeless are both much more likely to end up in jail, and much more likely to be victims of crimes.

A school yard bully is likely to have a very troubled life himself.

The poor are both more likely to be property crime victims and more likely to commit property crimes.

Substance abuse is intimately connected with crime. An overwhelming majority of people convicted of serious crimes (even non-drug crimes) have substance abuse problems (about a quarter of property crimes are committed for the purpose of getting money for drugs), and in many cases, the harm these individuals do to others is almost incidental to the self destruction they inflict upon themselves as a result of their addictions.

A large percentage of mass murderers end up killing themselves.

Cause and effect run both ways. Childhood abuse victims are particularly likely to abuse others or seek out lives of prostitution when they become adults. Victimization can make criminals out of victims, just as victimizers can find themselves becoming victims.

Prisons (particularly state prisons) are full of men who are either repeat felony offenders or commit serious, usually violent crime. These men, overwhelmingly, were not successful before their criminal careers commenced. A large percentage were high school dropouts. Only a tiny percentage attended even some college, and an even smaller percentage were college graduates. A highly disproportionate share were unemployed when they committed their crimes. People who are even moderately economically successful are extremely unlikely to commit serious crimes, relative to those who are clearly socio-economic failures. Again, there are mixed cause and effect issues present. Violent and dishonest tendencies themselves make one unfit for most careers. But, it is also true that extreme economic failure pushes people to consider extreme measures to survive.

People prone to commit traffic offenses, like teenaged boys, also tend to be accident victims at disproportionately high rates.

There are exceptions to this notion, of course. White collar criminals are often quite unlike their victims. Domestic violence, on average one sidedly involves male perpetrators and female victims. The elderly tend to be vulnerable to victimization in certain kinds of crimes, but rarely commit crimes themselves.

But, the victim-victimizer duality is common enough to make one reconsider that philosophical underpinning of our criminal justice system. While victims often are to blame for harming others, real justice in their cases may be impossible without recognizing that the perpetrators are themselves victims and finding a way to use that observation to motivate a more compassionate response to an individual who has committed a crime than a recitation of the crime itself would suggest.

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