Shine A Light

When is a victim not a victim?

Criminals are to be stopped from making claims for injuries, but criminals may be victims too.

Frances Crook
7 February 2012

Criminals are to be stopped from making claims for injuries, but criminals may be victims too.

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke wants to reform the taxpayer-funded Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme to ensure that a person with a criminal record will be able to claim compensation only in “exceptional circumstances”. The Howard League pioneered the principle of the state recognising that victims should get some financial recompense to go some way to mitigate their trauma and our campaign, led by one of my predecessors, led to the establishment of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme. So cuts to payouts to victims matter to us.

Let’s not be fooled into thinking that this is about principles, this is about money.The Ministry of Justice hopes it will be able to reduce the long backlog in compensation claims by completely removing people from being eligible.

Clarke’s decision led me to wonder when does an offender stop being an offender? Did Nick Clegg stop being an offender when he completed his community punishment for arson? Or was it when he became Deputy Prime Minister? Or is he still one now? One third of men have a criminal conviction by the time they’re 30; we shouldn’t so readily rush into condemning the ‘other’ to a lifetime of being called an offender.

Most of us go through life being both victim and offender: many people take class A drugs and are victim of burglaries. Many people speed or drink drive and are victim to sexual assault. People’s drink driving, or drug taking, or tax evasion, or theft, or assault does not mitigate their victimhood.

Our lawyers represented “Mark”, a 21-year-old man with Asperger’s syndrome, learning difficulties and a history of self-harm, who was remanded into prison in 2007. It was recommended that Mark, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, be remanded into a psychiatric unit, but there were no places available.

Despite his vulnerable nature, he was placed on a wing with sex offenders and was allegedly raped by a cellmate who had attempted to assault him several weeks earlier. He attempted to throw himself off a prison landing shortly after the alleged incident and is now in a psychiatric unit. Should Mark be prohibited from claiming money, which might go towards therapy to deal with the attack?

A criminal past should not automatically mean a person is any less deserving of compensation. This implies that reformation or rehabilitation is not possible, that it is not possible for somebody to make amends. A person may make a terrible error, one that will haunt them for the rest of their lives, but one day they must be able to reintegrate back into society.

In Germany, the money recouped from fines goes directly to victims’ charities and payments. Why don’t we do that here instead of bolstering the government’s coffers? The fine would be a form of restorative justice as perpetrators would be making amends to their victim and there would be greater support for the use of fines

I repeatedly hear the phrase "you do the crime, you do the time". Well it must work both ways – there is a tariff that the judge sets. We should not convict everybody to a sentence that can never be spent.

This piece first appeared in Frances Crook's blog at the Howard League.

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