Once a victim, always a criminal?

Once a victim, always a criminal?

Previous victimization of crime is a risk factor for becoming an offender, but while there are theories that may explain how this victim-offender overlap works, there is still much to be learned.

If you ask any criminologist what makes people turn towards crime, you will most likely get a long list of risk factors that many studies have found to be commonly associated with offending. The most probable risk factors are age, gender, and socioeconomic status: young males from a low socioeconomic status have the highest risk of becoming delinquent. Another strong, but less cited risk factor is previous victimization: individuals who experienced victimization have an increased chance of becoming an offender. In academic literature, this is often referred to as the victim-offender overlap. For example, previous abuse increases the likelihood of committing (fatal) domestic violence in the future. But why has this received less (academic and societal) attention? And why is there an association between being a victim and becoming an offender? For clarification purposes, I will focus specifically on interpersonal violence.

Let me start with the first question: the under-acknowledged finding of the victim-offender overlap in crime. The field of criminology has mainly concentrated on offending or on victimization. Truth be told, when I studied criminology more than ten years ago, the victim hardly played a role in my studies. But since a few years, I have also been working in the field of victimology and only then did I start to understand why we research victimization and offending separately. An important reason is the way we perceive victims and offenders. When we are asked to describe our image of a typical victim, we often think of a little old lady - weak, innocent and blameless for the crime she became a victim of. Christie calls this the ideal victim. On the other hand, the offender is often described as big and evil, intentionally harming the poor old lady merely for the pleasure of doing so. Baumeister terms this misconception the Myth of Pure Evil. Both Christie and Baumeister lay claim to the fact that this black-and-white distinction is based on myth rather than truth. The typical victim and the typical offender share common demographics: it is not the little old lady that has an increased risk of becoming a victim, it is the young male, who, as described above, is also most likely to become an offender.

This leads me to my second question: what explains this victim-offender overlap in interpersonal violence? One of the popular theoretical explanations can be sought in the lifestyle exposure theory. This theory explains victimization and offending as a result of the risky lifestyles individuals adhere to. According to this theory, criminal victimization occurs because potential victims place themselves in high-risk crime places, which increases the chance of being exposed to high-risk individuals, i.e. offenders. To give an example, young males are likely to go out on a Friday night and use (or abuse) substances. Pubs are considered high-risk places because of its availability of alcohol and/or drugs and the possibility of bringing high-risk individuals, under influence of alcohol and drugs, together. Consequently, the chance of a violent encounter occurring between our fictitious young males is much more likely to become reality. Often these violent encounters include individuals who are both the victim and the offender; they receive and give the punch. Another theoretical contribution to the victim-offender overlap is the cycle of violence theory. Its hypothesis is that adults have learned behaviour as a result of being the victims or witnesses of aggression when they were children. Violent behaviour is thus modelled according to the role models adults play in the lives of children. There are many more (empirically supported) theories to help us understand the victim-offender overlap, it all depends on the type of violence that we are trying to comprehend. The lifestyle exposure theory, for example, is often used to describe violence amongst strangers while the cycle of violence is often brought in perspective in domestic violence.

Does this mean that victimization automatically leads to offending? The answer is a definite no, not all victims turn into offenders. Yet, while the answer is very much straightforward, the victim-offender association is more complex than meets the eye. I have not even discussed the existence of a reversed association, the offender-victim overlap. Unfortunately, its complexity is inherent to the study of crime in general. We criminologists know the risk factors that lead to offending, but talking about causality is a whole different story. This does not mean that we must remain ignorant to the finding that previous victimisation can have an important influence on later offending. It now becomes important to determine what we do with this finding.