(Not all) Hurt people hurt people:
Re-thinking the Victim-Offender Overlap
Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime
The Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime helps victims to address their needs, promotes their interests and makes recommendations to the federal government on issues that affect victims. For more information visit: www.victimsfirst.gc.ca
Criminology literature focuses primarily on offenders, rather than victims and survivors. Historically, the literature has been either ‘offender-focused’, or ‘victim-focused’ (Jennings et al., 2011), in content. The research that does exist around victimization, primarily focuses on risk-factors for experiencing violence, largely overlooking the value of qualitative data surrounding victim experience and life course. The identification of a ‘high-risk’ group that experiences both victimization and offending is not a new phenomenon in the literature (Jennings et al., 2011). However, more recently, there has been increasing recognition both in the literature and in mainstream society about this phenomenon, which has become known as the ‘victim-offender overlap’. Research on this topic indicates strong support for the existence of this group, especially for more violent crimes such as homicide (Broidy et al., 2006; Jennings et al., 2011).
There is well-established literature indicating victimization is a risk-factor for criminal offending. Historically, the literature has emphasized the risk factors and engagement in ‘deviant’ behaviours and lifestyles that link victim and offender (Broidy et al., 2006; Jennings et al., 2012). More recently, there has been a focus on social conditions and experiences such as intergenerational violence and trauma, low socioeconomic status, limited access to education and opportunities, that increase one’s vulnerability to experience victimization and engage in criminal offending. In particular, there is increasing focus on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the role these experiences play in future violence, both in regards to victimization and perpetration (Reavis et al., 2013).
ACEs refer to potentially traumatic childhood events that could impact an individual’s development, and overall health and wellbeing (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “CDC”, 2021). Although not an exhaustive list, ACEs typically include: abuse, neglect, violence, and household exposure to mental health or substance use challenges (CDC, 2019). ACEs are associated with negative outcomes in adulthood, including physical and mental health challenges, social, emotional and cognitive impairment, substance misuse, and criminal offending (Reavis et al., 2013; CDC, 2019). According to the CDC (2019), one in six adults have experienced four or more types of ACEs. ACEs are often found at high levels among offender populations, and research indicates a positive relationship between multiple ACEs and the likelihood of aggressive, violent and/or criminal behaviours in adulthood (Reavis et al., 2013).
In exploring the literature and surrounding discourse of the victim-offender overlap it is evident that substantial gaps exist, primarily surrounding the many victims and survivors who are distinguishable from offenders. The discourse that surrounds the victim-offender overlap is offender-centered and deficits focused. The push to re-think the victim-offender overlap is not to dismiss the lived realities of many offenders, rather, it is to balance the narrative to be more victim-centered. Likewise with the increasing focus on addressing and preventing ACEs, and fostering protective factors in young people, victims and survivors of crime deserve to be understood and responded to in a way that is compassionate, strengths-based and resilience oriented. Positive coping strategies and resilience are major factors in victims’ ability to process what has happened to them in order to make sense of it and move forward (Hill, 2003). Focusing on individuals’ strengths and working to foster positive coping strategies encourages more successful and effective healing from the harm of criminal victimization (Hill, 2003).
Through critiquing and de-constructing the ‘hurt people hurt people’ narrative that surrounds the victim-offender overlap, it is possible to broaden our scope of understanding to see that not all hurt people, hurt people. The Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Crime (OFOVC) knows that many victims and survivors of crime do not go on to cause harm or criminally offend and has heard from victims and survivors directly that this narrative is over simplistic and deeply harmful. Despite this, there is almost non-existent research on the victims and survivors who do not go on to cause harm.
Expert and advocates who work in the area of victims’ rights and victim support have long been calling for a criminal justice system that is more responsive to the needs of victims and survivors. However, victim-centered policies and practices cannot be developed and implemented from a top-down approach. It is critical to remember that like all human beings, victims and survivors of crime are the experts in their own lives and as such, they must remain at the centre of this work. To do so, we must first and foremost bear witness to victims’ experiences and amplify their voices. Anecdotal and qualitative data on victims’ lived experiences must be prioritized and held sacred. Across Canada, frontline, victim-serving agencies and advocates engage in this work each and every day. Although these individuals are often privy to victims’ trials and tribulations, they simultaneously witness the incredible strength and resilience displayed by victims in the face of often unthinkable pain, grief, and trauma. At OFOVC, victims’ voices inform the very foundations of our policy recommendations and work.
It is essential to remember that victims do not ask to be victimized, yet they often bear the greatest burden of crime (Department of Justice, 2009). Misinformation and myths also serve to perpetuate harmful narratives that burden victims, such as the myth that all victims of child sexual abuse will become perpetrators (Cromer and Goldsmith, 2010, pp. 625). Although this information is false, OFOVC has heard from victims of child sexual abuse directly who fear they will become perpetrators because of myths such as these. We must shift this narrative to protect victims from further harm and trauma.
The OFOVC continuously hears that victims often feel like an afterthought in the criminal justice system. Many of the individuals who approach our office do so for assistance after exhausting many other avenues in a justice system that does not appear to take their concerns, nor the pain and suffering they have endured, seriously (OFOVC, 2020a). Victims and survivors have shared with the OFOVC feelings of mistrust and experiencing re-victimization navigating the criminal justice system. This is especially true for vulnerable and marginalized persons who face additional systemic barriers in this process. (OFOVC, 2020a; OFOVC, 2017). In particular, victims and survivors often report negative experiences in court and at parole hearings, in regard to the focus placed on the offender and the offender’s history of victimization. These experiences leave many victims and survivors feeling invalidated and frustrated.
Despite this, the vast majority of the victims and survivors we have the privilege of communicating with, do not go on to cause harm or offend. In the face of unthinkable trauma and tragedy, victims display incredible strength and resilience (Hill, 2003). We consistently hear from victims and survivors who are deeply committed to seeking remedy and resolution, not from a place of malice, but rather, from one of strength and healing. Victims and survivors are resourceful individuals who tirelessly self-advocate in the face of continuous barriers to accessing justice. A common sentiment we hear from victims and survivors is their hope that through their actions and advocacy, no other victim has to endure what they have gone through.
We know that unsupported victims and survivors are less likely to come forward and when victims are not treated as full partners in the criminal justice system, the system is less effective (OFOVC, 2020a). When provided with adequate supports, victims and survivors are able to engage in their healing journey, and ultimately, thrive (Hamby et al., 2020). To achieve a greater balance between victims and offenders in the Canadian criminal justice system, we must shift greater focus to victims’ experiences and their many points of strength and resilience; in order to channel our efforts into providing victims and survivors the tools and resources that build on these assets and position them to be most successful in their healing journey. We must centre victims in our conversations around crime but cannot put the onus solely on them to do the heavy lifting.
It is well-documented in the research literature that victimization is associated with higher trauma symptoms (Hamby et al., 2020). Much of the research in this area focuses on violence, trauma and victimization rates, with limited research and information available on the protective factors that help people cope and thrive in the face of adversity (Hamby et al., 2020). This is consistent with fact that there is limited academic literature on victims’ experiences, and victimization more broadly, especially in the Canadian context.
A recent study by Dr. Benjamin Roebuck et al. (2020), entitled Resilience and Survivors of Violent Crime, found that victims reported low to moderate levels of satisfaction with how they were treated in the criminal justice system and indicated that Canada’s efforts at victim-centered data collection are “patchy at best” (OFOVC, 2020a). Comprehensive data is critical in assisting with ensuring victim support resources are intentional and adequate; identifying victim challenges; and addressing inequities to better meet the needs of victims in Canada (OFOVC, 2020a).
Employing a strengths-based, victim-centered approach first necessitates the identification of victims’ strengths and protective factors associated with resilience. It is crucial to name and bring awareness to factors that can mitigate the impacts of criminal victimization (i.e., trauma symptoms) and facilitate coping and healing in order to centre victims and survivors and inform best practices. Sherry Hamby is a leading researcher in the area of adversity and trauma resilience. Hamby et al, (2020), emphasise the importance of identifying ‘true’ strengths, suggesting that many ‘protective factors’ in the area of adversity are in actuality, often “inverse risk-factors” which hinder effectively informing practice (Hamby et al., 2020, p. 379).
Trauma associated with criminal victimization can have long-standing and complex consequences for victims and survivors of crime, including cognitive changes (i.e., memory loss); psychological and emotional distress and dysregulation; and disrupted sense of self (Hill, 2003, pp. 4-5). Beyond the individual, victimization and trauma can have far-reaching effects on relationships with family and friends, and the wider community (Hill, 2003).
Despite all of this this, research in the area of resilience suggests that many people are able to achieve resilience and well-being despite experiencing substantial trauma and adversity (Hamby et al., 2020). Many victims are able to “weather the storm” and successfully utilize their coping resources to move forward and rebuild their lives, even in the absence of professional help (Hill, 2003). Although this information may be unsurprising to those who work closely with these individuals, it has meaningful implications for re-thinking how our current system views and treats victims and survivors, and how our criminal justice system can be more responsive to these individuals.
Resilience is a positive characteristic, that is often used to refer to an individual’s ability to stay healthy and balanced in the face of challenge and adversity (Hill, 2003). Resilience is both a process and continuum wherein individuals use their unique internal assets, strengths, and abilities to overcome diverse challenges (Hill, 2003; Hamby et al., 2020, p. 378). In the context of victimization and trauma, resilience can be understood as an individual’s ability to mobilize these strengths and resources to recover after a distressing/crisis event (Hill, 2003). According to Hamby et al. (2013), resilience involves three elements: an adversity/traumatic experience; evidence of healthy functioning after said adversity; and last, a protective factor or strength that facilitates the recovery from distress and ‘rebounding’ from the adversity (p. 172).
Throughout their research, Sherry Hamby and colleagues, have worked to identify the most promising protective factors for promoting well-being and thriving after trauma and adversity in the following three domains: self-regulation (or ‘regulatory strengths’); meaning-making; and interpersonal strengths (Hamby et al., 2020, p. 383). Within these domains, notable strengths identified are: emotional regulation, emotional awareness and endurance; purpose, optimism and religious meaning making; and compassion, generativity, and community support (Hamby et al., 2016, p. 227).
The Resilience Portfolio Model (RPM) is a framework developed by Grych et al. (2015), that seeks to combine research on resilience, positive psychology, posttraumatic growth and coping to provide a comprehensive approach to understanding the promotion of health and thriving in individuals who have experienced adversity (Hamby et al., 2018). The RPM is a way in which we can understand and approach victimization from a strengths-based lens. The model suggests that “supporting a strong ‘portfolio’ of strengths”, especially relating to: self-regulation, meaning making, and the interpersonal context, are important for promoting well-being after adversity (Hamby et al., 2018; Hamby et al., 2020, p. 378).
As suggested by past research on the RPM, meaning-making is particularly important for positive mental-health outcomes and well-being in the face of criminal victimization, trauma and adversity more broadly (Hamby et al., 2020; Hill, 2003). Meaning making refers to “ways individuals seek fulfilment by connecting to something larger than themselves” and meaning-making activities are often a target of treatment interventions (Hamby et al., 2020; Hill, 2003). Meaning-making involves a combination of seeking out information to make sense of and process the victimization, and emotional coping (Hill, 2003). Hamby et al., (2020), also discuss ‘poly-strengths’ whereby, along with individual strengths, the total number and diversity of strengths that combine together, are important in resilience.
Additional key factors associated with promoting resilience and positive coping that are highlighted in the literature on victimization, include but are not limited to: self-confidence/autonomy; adaptability; positive outlook and hopefulness; the ability to manage complex emotions; social competence and social support (Hill, 2003; Bonanno 2005; Gewirtz and Edleson 2007; Coifman et al. 2007; Haskett et al. 2006). Hill (2003) emphasizes the importance of identifying strengths and ‘growth-themes’ in the context of the victimization process, in order to build on and foster these pre-existing strengths; which is more clinically effective than attempting to build new ones during a stressful time.
Victims and survivors of both violent and non-violent crimes alike, often require increased support in the aftermath of crime. Victims and survivors of crime come into contact with many different persons and often seek assistance/support from a variety of informal and formal resources, including: frontline victim serving agencies (i.e., Victim Services); friends and family; various mental and physical health professionals and counselling services (Bow Valley Victim Services Association, “BVVSA”, 2021). It is important that victims and survivors are met with accessible and time-sensitive interventions and supports (Hill, 2003). In the context of criminal victimization, identifying and understanding factors associated with resilience in the aftermath of trauma and adversity is critical. Knowledge and awareness of these factors helps inform best practices for those who work directly with victims of crime.
For frontline victim serving agencies who often provide crisis intervention, and direct emotional and practical support to victims, knowing the strengths to target is critical given many of these agencies and service providers have limited time and resources (Hamby et al., 2020, p. 378). For example, with the knowledge that fostering a sense of purpose and meaning making is associated with resilience in the context of trauma and adversity, there is promising grounds for evidence-based interventions in various settings, such as narrative-based interventions (Hamby et al., 2020).
Beyond informing best practices for victim serving frontline agencies, this information has wider implications for other resources and support persons aforementioned, along with the many different criminal justice personnel who come into contact with victims and survivors, including police officers, lawyers, Crown Prosecutors and judges. This information is also highly relevant in terms of policy implications, whereby, with more information about how to best support victims and survivors of crime, there is more opportunity to put pressure on policy-makers to re-think the current response to crime and victimization in Canada, to ensure the revision and development of policies is more victim-centered and evidence-based.
In her book: In Pursuit of Impact: Trauma- and Resilience-Informed Policy Development, Dr. Nadia Ferrara offers a unique approach to understanding trauma and resilience that focuses on humanizing the experience; balancing trauma with resilience; and emphasizes the critical nature of incorporating this approach in developing meaningful public policy (2018). Wherein, while the typical approach to resilience is often acknowledging an individuals’ resilience after healing, Dr. Ferrara highlights the importance of recognizing the resilience of an individual during and throughout a traumatic experience (2018).
Likewise, the research on ACEs indicates that despite the range of long-term negative effects of ACEs, mitigating the impacts is possible with proper intervention strategies (Canadian Municipal Network on Crime Prevention, “CMNCP”, 2021, p. 38). We must work to build off victims’ protective factors and resilience to mitigate the impact of harm and promote healing. Similar to the approach with ACEs, this can be achieved through early intervention; providing support for mental health challenges and substance use/misuse; working to develop (and build on pre-existing) positive coping strategies; and promoting pro-social activities and positive relationships (CMNCP, 2021, p. 38).
Given the emphasis on individual factors, experiences, and behaviours, resilience literature risks placing the onus back onto victims and survivors to ‘do the work’. It is imperative to highlight the need for a structural response to support victims and those who work directly with them.
Criminal victimization, especially of a violent nature, severely impacts the lives of victims and their loved ones. According to Statistics Canada, the annual cost of crime is $99.6 billion per year, with 83% of these costs falling on victims (Department of Justice, 2015). With limited options to offset costs, victims often incur incredible financial costs (both tangible and intangible) and “bear the greatest burden” of crimes (Department of Justice, 2009). This information prevails and is important in understanding the extent of criminal victimization in Canada (Department of Justice, 2015) and the need for sufficient funding for victims of crime.
Beyond victims and their loved ones, violence has wider implications for the health and wellbeing of communities and society at large, often resulting in heightened costs for reactionary services, such as policing and victim services (CMNCP, 2021). This contributes to and compounds fear among community members (CMNCP, 2021). This is especially true for marginalized and racialized persons in the context of ongoing anti-black police violence and rising tension between police and citizens. Research also suggests this has implications for feelings of safety, by means of which, young women, feel less safe than men (CMNCP, 2021, p. 30).
It is important to utilize an intersectional lens in understanding crime and victimization, wherein, an individual’s experience of criminal victimization- even for similar crimes- is different depending on their lived experience and various identity factors, including (but not limited to): race, gender identity, socio-economic status, and culture (BVVSA, 2021). As such, victims and survivors of crime need services and supports that are responsive to their individual needs and inclusive of their many intersecting identities (BVVSA, 2021). Particular emphasis should be placed on ensuring that there are culturally safe and relevant programs available for victims and survivors. Further consideration needs to be given to certain victim populations who require trauma-informed responses and holistic services, namely: victims of gender-based violence, the 2SLGBTQ+ community, and Indigenous peoples-who are overrepresented in the justice system as both offenders and victims (Press, 2019; McDonald, 2019, p. 21).
This is closely related to the topic of access to justice; the OFOVC continues to hear frustration from victims and survivors, especially in the context of Covid-19, with additional barriers to victim participation, such as major court-delays. It is essential to consider factors influencing unequal treatment and access to basic justice (i.e., reporting crimes, seeking assistance, and participation in criminal trials), such as: low socioeconomic status, cultural and language barriers, and geographic constraints (McDonald, 2019, p. 20).
Further related is re-victimization, wherein, the literature suggests there is a link between early victimization and later victimization (Hamby et al., 2016). The experience of victimization over the life course is often an unfortunate reality, especially for many vulnerable and marginalized individuals. Research suggests that the cumulative burden, or number of victimizations (referred to as ‘poly-victimization’)- versus the impact of one incident- more effectively dictates implications for one’s current and future health (Hamby & Grych, 2013; Hamby et al., 2020, p. 377).
In the context of gender-based violence, this information holds great weight. Gender-based violence comprises a wide range of categories and behaviours, including: unwanted sexual behaviour and harassment, sexual assault, and physical assault (Cotter & Savage, 2019). Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a form of gender-based violence that disproportionately affects those who identify as women, and is typically perpetrated by men (Cotter & Savage, 2019). According to Statistics Canada (2018), 79% of police-reported intimate partner violence (IPV) victims are women, although this statistic is more than likely underestimated, given the prevalence of underreporting this violence. Not only are women more likely to experience gender-based violence, research indicates women are more likely to experience multiple incidents in a 12-month period, and are negatively impacted to a greater extent (i.e., changing routines and behaviours, and/or experiencing negative emotional consequences) compared to men. Previous research indicates that disabled women, Indigenous women, girls and young women, and lesbian and bisexual women, are more at risk of experiencing violence (Cotter & Savage, 2019).
Policies such as mandatory charges in domestic violence cases have disproportionate negative impacts on women who have experienced gender-based violence. In a 2005 study of women arrested in domestic violence situations in Toronto, research findings indicated that women’s use of force was most often in response to ongoing abuse from a male partner; charging abused women increased their vulnerability for subsequent abuse; and there are serious social, emotional and financial consequences that result from criminalizing abused women (as cited in Pollack et al., 2005, p. 4).
The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated challenges faced by victims and survivors of crime in Canada and has had disproportionate effects on vulnerable populations who are already at greater risk of experiencing violence and victimization (i.e., women, members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community, and members of Black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities (OFOVC, 2021b). Experts are concerned that victims of IPV and family violence face heightened risks as a result of pandemic emergency measures which have forced many victims to isolate at home with their abusers, with inadequate access to supports and services (Mittal & Singh, 2020).
The “Peaceful Homes: A Guide to the Prevention of Violence in the Home During and After Covid-19” (2021) report, recently released by the Canadian Municipal Network on Crime Prevention (CMNCP) proposed a framework for responding to family violence in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The framework is specifically focused on families that have increased risk of conflict escalating to violence, as a result of various socio-economic factors and stressors (CMNCP, 2021). There are concerns of an increase in family violence in these ‘lower-risk’ homes should these issues continue to go unaddressed (CMNCP, 2021, p. 7). The report discusses the lack of attention paid to violence prevention during the pandemic, shedding light on what experts have deemed inadequate legislation and services available to victims of violence (CMNCP, 2021; Mittal & Singh, 2020). The report highlights that the reason many families and homes have remained “relatively stable” is due to “adequate resilience and protective factors”.
Victims of IPV and family violence are increasingly vulnerable, especially in the context of ongoing lockdowns during Ontario’s experience of a ‘third-wave’ of the virus. Victims and survivors deserve access to necessary services to ensure their basic needs are met, including the right to feel safe in their own homes. We continue to place the onus on victims and survivors to cope and be resilient with limited effort to lessen the burden and protect these individuals. The importance of taking an ‘upstream’ approach (CMNCP, 2020) in addressing and preventing violence will be further discussed in the following section.
In response to violence, abuse and trauma, the Canadian justice system needs to be more responsive to the needs of victims and survivors and keep victims at the centre of its processes, instead of disempowering them and perpetuating abuse. By focusing on victims’ strengths, resilience and protective factors, we can work to enhance prevention and intervention efforts, which will ultimately serve to make our communities healthier and safer places to live. Moving forward in this work necessitates a consideration of the following.
Our criminal justice system cannot be more responsive to victims and survivors without prioritizing victim-centered research and data collection. As previously discussed, there are blatant gaps in the literature on victimization and the victim experience in the Canadian context. The research that does exist primarily focuses on victimization statistics and risk factors, and is largely ignored and dismissed as a priority by decision makers. In particular, there is a need for more strengths-based, victim-centered data collection on protective factors and resilience that prevent so many people who are harmed from going on to cause harm to others.
Focusing on victims and survivors means taking the time to bear witness to victims’ experience and learn from them. Witnessing victims’ resistance to victimization, violence, and adversity more broadly, is a foundational part of response-based practice (RBP). RBP is an evidence-based framework for responding to violence. The ten core tenants of RBP- put forward by Dr. Linda Coates and Dr. Allan Wade (2020) from the Centre for Response-Based Practice- emphasize the social context in which violence occurs; human beings as social actors; resistance is ever-present in the response to violence; and that dignity is central to well-being (Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society, 2020, pp. 3-4). Training on response-based practice helps individuals “better respond to, support, and restore dignity and safety” for all survivors of violence (Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society, 2020, p. 3). The Kaska Advocates Training content by the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society (2020) provides a contextual analysis of response-based practice, inclusive of: an assessment tool, documentation instruments and an interview guide and can be a helpful tool in learning and training.
This information and these resources are needed to help improve awareness and training, and to enhance the effectiveness of current prevention and intervention efforts, and develop new ones (Hamby et al., 2016). Experts in the area of victimization and resilience emphasize the importance of paying greater attention to protective factors and strengths, especially in the context of poly-victimization, in order to address the cumulative burden of victimization across the lifespan (Hamby et al., 2016). It is important to take a more holistic approach to intervention efforts in particular, in order to build strengths and increase wellbeing across “all aspects of the social ecology” (Hamby et al., 2016, p. 229). Moving beyond the focus on risk-factors, this will involve the development of better tools to assess strengths and protective factors. Incorporating frameworks like RBP can play a critical role in this work.
The fact that IPV and family violence are increasing during Covid-19, speaks volumes to the importance of accessible and sustainably funded programs and supports for victims to assist them in their path toward healing. For too long, the onus has been placed on victims and survivors, along with frontline victim-serving agencies to do the heavy lifting (OFOVC, 2020a). It is not enough to talk about a theoretical shift in our approach to crime prevention and intervention- this requires action from decision makers and adequate resources to those doing the work.
Frontline victim-serving agencies bear witness to victims’ experiences every day, which is premised on the (mostly) informal collection of anecdotal and qualitative data on victims’ lived experiences. There is a need to commit to sustainable core-funding to these frontline agencies. This has been previously recommended in the OFOVC Canadian Victims Bill of Rights (CVBR) Progress Report (2020a) and in the Submission on the study of Controlling or Coercive Conduct within Intimate Relationships, which noted that the current system of project funding through grants and contributions is “haphazard and inconsistent” (OFOVC, 2021a). Through committing to sustainable funding and prioritizing research initiatives, we will better equip those already doing this work to more effectively respond to and support victims in an evidence-based way. This will not only inform the work of service providers, but also, it provides invaluable information to academics, criminal justice personnel, government decision makers, and the general public, while at the same time engaging and empowering victims and survivors.
As the people who often directly interact with victims and survivors, training for criminal justice personnel on how to most effectively respond to victims, is critical. In the CVBR Progress Report, the OFOVC recommended the Department of Justice develop and evaluate ongoing training for all officials working in the criminal justice system at all levels of government (2020a). Data on fostering victim resilience and protective factors can contribute to informing more comprehensive training for these individuals.
Navigating the legal system and the justice framework after crime, often contributes to victims feeling “further harmed, scarred, and silenced” (Van Sluytman, 2020). One way the criminal justice system can be more responsive to the needs of victims and survivors in the aftermath of crime, is through expanding and increasing the use of victim-centered Restorative Justice (RJ) initiatives. As previously mentioned, the impacts of crime and victimization often extend beyond the individual harmed. There is evidence that RJ processes have positive implications not only for victims, but also for the wider community (Van Sluytman, 2020). Special consideration should be given to the use of RJ in addressing certain types of violent crime, like sexual violence and gun violence. The OFOVC has previously recommended that the Federal Government provide core-funding to community-based RJ programs (OFOVC, 2020a).
Research indicates RJ better meets the needs of victims and survivors and produces higher levels of satisfaction than experiences with the traditional court system (Department of Justice, 2018; Drost, 2015). Proponents of victim-centered RJ note it offers victims another avenue through which they may access justice, and experience empowerment (Singer, 2019). Where the traditional criminal justice process focuses on perpetrators of crime, RJ shifts the focus onto the victims’ experience, feelings and emotions, such as “pain, hurt, confusion and even humiliation” (Restore, 2017). Despite high levels of awareness about RJ among criminal justice professionals, and growing interest among victims, victims do not often receive adequate information or referrals to RJ programs (Bourgon, 2019; as cited in McDonald, 2019, p.14). Thus, we see an under-use in RJ, despite well-documented research suggesting its benefits for victims (i.e., positive psychological implications, as well as increased agency and empowerment) (Vanfraechem et al., 2015, pp 3, 52; Wemmers, 2017, pp. 14). The OFOVC has previously recommended the CVBR be amended to mandate the provision of information on RJ programs to victims who report crimes in the CVBR Progress Report (2020a).
Special consideration must be given to RJ processes with gender-based violence. Much has been written on the positive aspects of RJ in response to IPV and/or sexual violence, including: a venue through which women may be heard and feel empowered; a means through which victims may remedy some of the harms experienced (i.e., offender responsibility); and a potential opportunity to report subsequent abuse (as cited in Singer, 2019). However, experts (i.e., feminist advocates and practitioners) have also raised many concerns about the use of RJ in response to gender-based violence, primarily surrounding the need to ensure RJ processes are victim-centered; taking into account the victims’ interests, victim safety, and power imbalances between offender and victim (Singer, 2019) so as not to further harm and violence.
As such, it is critical that the RJ approach is victim-centered and victim-led. In their paper on victim-led restorative justice, Margot Van Sluytman (2020) emphasizes the need to include victims’ voices in the development and oversight of RJ programs and processes, noting that “progress, policy and resources” are crucial to victim-led RJ. As the people directly harmed by crime, voluntary participation by victims is a key principle that must inform RJ processes (Drost, 2015). In their paper, Van Sluytman (2020) explains ‘Sawbonna’: a newer model of RJ. Sawbonna places victims at the forefront of RJ processes and is premised on shared humanity, human rights and agency. As a framework, Sawbonna emphasizes victim empowerment, resilience and relationships (Van Sluytman, 2020), which is fitting with the emphasis on taking a strengths-based approach to harm and victimization that has been discussed throughout the paper.
Information about victim-centered RJ- and frameworks like Sawbonna- have implications for informing future policy responses in expanding RJ initiatives, if not solely serving as a reminder and call to action to centre victims and survivors in this work. Moreover, if the human impact is not incentivizing enough, it is important to note RJ is often more cost-effective than the traditional system, both in practice (i.e., primarily volunteer-led mediation) and in the long-term, through reducing re-offending (Department of Justice, 2018).
In discussion with the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime: Heidi Illingworth, the CMNCP’s Peaceful Homes report highlights the need to place greater emphasis on violence prevention, wherein, despite the importance of victim services and responses to violence, the best way to support victims is to ensure they are never victimized (2021). In particular, the OFOVC and CMNCP highlight the importance of taking an ‘upstream’ approach, which involves addressing the root causes of violence before it occurs or escalates by focusing on risk prevention and intervention (i.e., mitigating situations of elevated risk) (OFOVC, 2021b). Upstream violence prevention has been previously recommended by the OFOVC in an open letter to Dr. Theresa Tam, regarding the need for a violence prevention strategy as part of Canada’s pandemic recovery plan (2020b).
Peaceful Homes discusses the cost-effectiveness of upstream prevention and the emphasis on addressing social risk factors through evidence-based strategies and programs (CMNCP, 2021). The report provides the example of a social media campaign developed in partnership with OFOVC which aims to spread awareness and information to the general public on effective solutions to prevent violence. This is fitting with the research on ACEs discussed previously, and the importance of early intervention to mitigate harms and improve outcomes in adulthood.
Unfortunately, many hurt people do hurt other people. However, this is not the reality for the majority of victims and survivors of crime. The focus on this discourse risks overlooking and dismissing the experience of the majority of victims and survivors who do not go on to cause harm and criminally offend. To strike a greater balance between victims and offenders in the Canadian criminal justice system, we must shift the narrative and take a victim-centered, strengths-based approach to understanding and responding to violence, abuse and victimization. To effectively move forward, we must focus on the incredible strengths, resilience and protective factors within victims and use these to inform prevention and intervention efforts (Grych and Hamby, 2015).
Victim-centredness starts with adequate and enforceable rights. Victims in Canada continue to lack adequate rights. The OFOVC knows that in many cases “victims’ concerns are overlooked because the “real” pursuit of justice is seen to be between criminal justice authorities and the accused” (OFOVC, 2020a). The Canadian Victim Bill of Rights (CVBR) does not go far enough in enforcing victims’ rights and ensuring equitable access to justice for all victims and survivors of crime. In the CVBR Progress Report, the OFOVC emphasized the need to provide victims with the ability to legally enforce their rights when they are violated and put out a nation-wide call to action to review and strengthen the CVBR (2020a). Likewise, with increasing focus on offender rehabilitation, victims and survivors of crime deserve equitable policy responses that are centered on promoting victim healing, dignity and well-being in order to support victims in meaning-making and promote thriving.
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