Criminologists study the operations of the criminal justice system, which is
made up oflaw enforcement agencies, prosecutors' offices, defense attorneys,
judges, juries, probation and corrections departments, and parole authorities.
They investigate how the system handles offenders-specifically, suspects, defendants,
convicts, probationers, inmates, and parolees. Victimologists explore how the system
handles victims: how the police respond to complainants; how prosecutors, defense
attorneys, and judges treat these witnesses for the state; and how corrections, proba-
tion, and parole officials react to victims' special requests.
Sociologists who analyze social institutions from
a functionalist perspective point out that the criminal
justice system is supposed to serve as the first line of
defense for innocent, law-abiding people against the
depredations of the "criminal element." In other
words, the system ought to work to help victims
recover from harm inflicted by offenders. But those
who adopt a conflict perspective see the legal system
in a different light. Agencies and officials act to some
extent on their own behalf and follow policies that
are in their own self-interest, as well as to the advan-
tage of more powerful interest groups that dominate
society (see Reiman, 2005). Therefore, it is not sur-
prising from the conflict perspective to discover that
certain issues place victims at odds with the agencies
and officials whose ostensible mission is to protect
and assist them.
VICTIMS VERSUS THE
CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
The criminal justice system is one branch of gov-
ernment that comes under scathing attack from all
political quarters. Conservative crime control pro-
ponents, treatment-oriented liberals, civil libertar-
ians, civil rights activists, feminists, and victim
advocates-all find fault with its procedures and
principles. Over the past few decades, even some
officials who run its agencies and shape its daily
operations have joined the chorus of critics calling
for change. However, they sharply disagree over
how to reform the system.
The consensus among the experts who focus
on victim issues is that the criminal justice system
does not measure up to expectations. It fails to de-
liver what it promises. It does not meet the needs
and wants of victims as its clients or consumers of
its services. Serious problems persist, and the indict-
ments of the system voiced over the years still stand
today (see Box 6.1).
SUP20se a person is robbed and injured. What
could and should the system do to dispense justice
in this case?
Law enforcement agencies are at the intake end
of the legal system and are the criminal justice
professionals that victims initially encounter.
Police officers could rush to help the victim and
provide whatever physical and psychological first
aid might be needed. They could catch the culprit
and properly collect evidence that will stand up in
court. They could recover any stolen goods taken
by the robber and speedily return these items to the
rightful owner. The prosecutor could make sure the
defendant is indicted and then press for a swift trial.
After conviction, the victim's views about a fair
resolution of this case could be fully aired. The
judge could hand down a sentence that would
balance the victim's wishes with the community's
desires and the robber's needs. Correctional author-
ities could see to it that the probationer, prisoner, or
parolee doesn't harass or harm the person whose
complaint set the machinery of criminal justice
into motion. If the offender was ordered by the
judge to reimburse the victim for his losses and ex-
penses, then correctional authorities could insure
that these payments or services are delivered in a
timely fashion, as promised.
But this "best-case scenario" frequently does
not materialize. Instead of enjoying the cooperation
of officials and supportive services from agencies as
the system handles "their" cases, victims might find
themselves sorely disappointed or even locked into
conflicts with the police, prosecutors, judges, war-
dens, and parole boards.