Cover photo of Social Policy Journal

National Organisation for Victims Assistance; 20th Anniversary Conference and International Summit

Robert Teppett
Crime Prevention Team
Social Policy Agency

The hosting of the NOVA conference in Maui in August of this year was to celebrate two decades of dedicated support for victims and survivors of crime. While NOVA is an American organisation, this was a truly international conference, with delegates from Russia, South Africa, Spain, Holland, the UK, Israel, Korea and Japan. It became evident as the conference progressed that these countries have varying levels of victim service development, and that the cross-cultural and cross-national perspectives would enrich the knowledge base of all delegates.

Crime statistics in the USA are horrendous (there were 22,500 murders alone in 1992) which makes victims of crime a "live" issue and, through the efforts of NOVA, a very political one. At the forum to discuss updating the 1982 President's Task Force on Victims of Crime, major issues that were raised, and pursued at the workshop level, included:

  • the need for justice for families of murder victims;
  • the right for victims to make representations at parole hearings;
  • total agreement with the new "three strikes and you're out" laws;
  • an 0900 number to check on suspected child molesters;
  • that restitution be paid before the granting of parole;
  • that acceptance of 10-2 jury decisions is an absolute requirement;
  • that violence prevention education in schools is a major priority.

Violence Prevention

Young people are the most frequently victimised population in the USA. Presenters from the California Youth Authority described the need to develop lively, effective crime prevention and victim assistance curricula for young people, encompassing conflict resolution and anger management.

Because we all learn in a variety of ways, using linguistic, logical/mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily/kinaesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal styles, it is important to plan lessons which integrate all these approaches to ensure the message is absorbed. They argued that the best chance for the future (in terms of crime prevention) lies in effective education of young people, by minimising educational failure and low self-esteem which are well recognised antecedent factors in juvenile offending.

Mediation/Restorative Justice

Mark Umbrieht, Director of the Centre for Restorative Justice and Mediation, University of Minnesota, gave a workshop entitled "Victim Empowerment Through Mediation / Dialogue". The purpose of mediating a voluntary dialogue between interested victims of crime and offenders should be the empowerment of victims through active participation in the criminal justice system, reducing their level of fear of re-victimisation, and assisting in the healing process.

There is no sense of closure for victims of crime and western criminal justice systems often re-victimise those already traumatised by the criminal act. Politically, the concept of restorative justice bridges the conventional ideological boundaries of liberal and conservative, leading to the development of a powerful alliance committed to making the criminal justice system more responsive to victims' needs.

The appropriateness of mediation and restorative processes in the context of domestic violence is as contentious in the USA as it is in this country. Dr Umbrieht, who has successfully mediated dialogue between murderers and the families of their victims, is resolute that the concept of mediation is inappropriate in the contest of domestic violence. Mediation has to be an issue of choice for both victim and offender, premised on an admission of guilt by the offender. This is problematic in domestic violence because of the dynamic nature of disputes, and the likelihood that power and control issues are not resolved.

Unique Victim Issues

Roberta Roper's daughter Stephanie was kidnapped by two men, brutally raped and murdered in 1982. As part of her recovery, Mrs Roper established the non-profit Stephanie Roper Foundation to provide information, support and assistance to crime victims and their families in Maryland.

The Stephanie Roper Committee was formed in response to the public outcry when Stephanie's murderers received sentences which, although 27 years long, made them eligible for parole in less than twelve years. Even capital punishment attracts a cynical response with the constitutional right to defendant appeal costing between $1 and $5 million per person, an extremely expensive sentence for taxpayers to bear.

The goals of the Committee are to educate the public and to advocate fair treatment of crime victims so that the Maryland criminal justice system will treat victims and their families with courtesy, compassion and justice. In 1994 the Committee achieved constitutional amendments in the Maryland General Assembly which make it mandatory for criminal justice services to obtain victims' views on sentencing and parole applications.

This is significant to New Zealand as our Victims of Offences Act remains couched in discretionary language and has no sanctions for non-compliance, which makes its interpretation and application variable. This was a powerful presentation which emphasised the importance of positive advocacy in achieving political change: i.e. the Stephanie Roper committee is "pro-victim not anti-offender".


Dr. Richard Titus from the National Institute of Justice, Washington, DC, presented a workshop focusing on re-victimisation, drawing on the British Crime Surveys of 1988 and 1992 findings that the 5% of respondents who experienced five or more victimisations suffered 43% of all crimes reported, and half those victimised in the 1992 survey were repeat victims who suffered 81% of reported crimes. Other research shows that repeat victimisation applies across a wide range of crimes: domestic violence, burglary, car theft and assault. Dr Titus argued that crime prevention objectives could be achieved by building initiatives around greater victim responsiveness to prevent re-victimisation.

The criminological contribution to reducing re-victimisation comes from integrating what Titus describes generically as victim-centres "active theory" with offender-centred "rational choice" theory . In other words, by combining what we know about offender motivation and behaviour, with "target-hardening" strategies which become the responsibility of the potential victim. This approach forms an integral part of the New Zealand Crime Prevention Strategy which includes promoting strategies that educate people about ways of avoiding or preventing victimisation.

The International Summit

The International Summit consisted of a panel of delegates described the nature and development of victim services in their respective countries.

The South African delegate described the marginal position of women and children in his country; and crime statistics of four homicides a minute and one rape every 83 seconds. The application of the cautionary rule by South African judges in cases of rape ("because women lie about such things") means that women can be abused twice, first by their husbands (a wife is seen as her husband's property), and next by the courts who frequently excuse the perpetrator. The delegate felt this was the legacy of apartheid, with criminal behaviour being perpetrated by large sections of a population suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Japanese delegate argued that there is a cultural bias against victims in Japan stemming from the philosophy of Confucius, which teaches that good people have nothing to fear. From this, the Japanese infer that if you become a victim of crime it is a spiritual pay-back for leading a less-than-circumspect life. This results in significant feelings of shame in Japanese victims of crime, a low rate of crime reporting, and very real logistic difficulties in mobilising victim services.

The delegates from the UK and Holland illustrated the developmental lag that exists when comparing New Zealand to these countries. The Netherlands services have been established since 1984, and receive substantial government funding ($10 million annually). Legislation introduced in 1993 makes it mandatory for prosecutors to consult with victims before deciding how to proceed with the case; trials can proceed when the defendant does not turn up, avoiding further inconvenience to victims; and in homicide cases only one forensic pathologist report is requested, and this cannot be challenged. There is a strong preference for restitution (preferably pre-trial to achieve diversion), and policy development initiatives embrace the concept of restorative justice.

The Director of Victim Support in the UK described the organisation as being pro-victim, not anti-offender, and explained that it does not comment on criminal cases so as not to alienate the considerable support it receives from the judiciary. Victim Support receives annual funding of approximately £13 million, and concentrates on providing crisis services, access to compensation services and ensuring access to the criminal justice process.

The organisation is very aware of the degree of victimisation and re-victimisation in the UK, and sees the provision of victim services as fulfilling a crime prevention objective. Victim Support is currently lobbying for the courts to pay restitution, rather than the "drip-feed" system of payments made by the offender. There is support from the judiciary for this proposal, but reticence from Treasury.

The breadth and depth of personal and academic knowledge shared by delegates provided an opportunity to develop an informed critique of victim service development in this country. It is probably fair to say that New Zealand lags behind in victim compensation and advocacy. The amendments to the Accident Compensation Corporation in 1992 have exacerbated the lack of equity that exists for victims of crime, and is substantially inferior to initiatives in the UK and the US. Our Victims of Offences Act is toothless in comparison to the Bill of Rights, and demonstrates a reluctance to provide full victim advocacy. This reflects our historical tendency to prioritise the rights of defendants above those of victims.

On the positive side, New Zealand can be seen to be at the forefront of developing restorative justice models (as manifest in our youth justice process), and policy development initiatives which seek to embrace elements of our indigenous culture. We have a distinct advantage over many countries in having a relatively low violent-crime rate and a small population, making the goals of the NZ Crime Prevention Strategy appear achievable.

Cover photo of Social Policy Journal


Social Policy Journal of New Zealand: Issue 05

National Organisation for Victims Assistance; 20th Anniversary Conference and International Summit

Dec 1995

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