In communities low on resources but high on violence, when a crime victim looks in the mirror, often a violent criminal is staring back. Statistically, being an individual who has committed violent crimes correlates with an elevated risk of later becoming a victim of violent crime. At the same time, violent crime victims have been shown to be more likely than others to later engage in violence.
Criminal justice scholarship has long recognized that split existence, known as the victim-offender overlap. In fact, the prevalence of violence victims who have also committed violent offenses is the norm in many crime-prone communities.
The literature to date has mainly focused on formative influences on the victim-offender overlap. A key insight from the 1980s was that dual victim-offender status is largely reflective of the retaliatory violence prevalent in underprivileged urban areas.
Far less light has been shed on post-crime consequences for their victims, and in particular whether and how victims who have also been convicted of offenses are guided toward or seek help for their serious injuries and other harms, such as psychological trauma, caused by criminal assaults.
Recent research sponsored by the National Institute of Justice has examined the help-seeking and help- finding behavior of victims of violent street encounters. On the positive side, a study of inner-city Philadelphia crime victims by a Temple University team found that when police respond to crimes involving serious injury, that response improves the odds that the victim will receive one of four key types of post-injury services.
That measurable benefit, however, does not alter the bottom-line reality that crime victims who also commit offenses, like all crime victims, are highly unlikely, overall, to seek or receive any victim services. In the end, only 16% of all crime victims in the study reported having accessed any of the four key victim services:
- Victim compensation assistance
- Victims’ advocate services from the police
- Victims’ advocate services from the district attorney’s office
- Help with legal and court processes
Inability of those who offend and also are victims to connect with victim support services can have profound consequences, for victims and communities. “The result is potential harm to the short- and long-term health of offender-victims, and harm to the overall well-being of urban, minority communities,” the Temple researchers reported.
The report resulting from this research recognized formidable systemic barriers to post-injury services for this distinct crime victim subset, including:
- The Good Victim/Bad Offender Dichotomy: Large systems that can provide formal supports to victims, such as criminal justice, health, and mental health agencies, tend to regard an individual as offender or victim, but not both. This “highly adversarial dichotomized model” can negatively affect offender-victim access to victim treatment and services.
- Victims of Crime Act Ineligibility: The federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funds state victim compensation programs. Those programs can cover loss of earnings and medical care for physical injuries and psychological trauma, as well as other victim expenses. Victim-offenders can be excluded from VOCA support, however, for instance when they were offending parties at the time of the crime or because they had failed to pay outstanding fees or fines from previous crimes. Victims may hold an erroneous belief that they were ineligible for formal support resources because of their status as people who have committed an offense, or were unable or unwilling to navigate a complicated service system.
- Lack of Victim Awareness of Services: Many victims lack knowledge of VOCA and other victim support, the researchers found. Of the crime victims who took part in the study, 72.8% said they had no awareness of any victim compensation assistance. Half of the study sample had no knowledge of advocacy services through police and prosecutor agencies. A few told researchers they wanted no involvement with police, reflecting the anti-snitching street culture.
In fact, the report noted, qualitative studies  to date addressing perceptions of victims related to crime reporting and help seeking have emphasized that the vast majority of victims of violent crime, even those who are not committing offenses, do not seek support in the form of formal victim services.
The overlap between victim and those committing offenses is substantial. For violent crimes such as homicide, most victims have also committed offenses. In Chattanooga, for example, more than half of all shooting victims in 2015 had criminal histories with a violent crime or gun charge. One study found that violent offending increases risk for victimization by 68% in neighborhoods where the street code of violence is strong. Another study found that7 victims of violence are 55% more likely than non-victims to commit a violent crime.
Past research has focused primarily on cause and risk factors of informing the victim-offender overlap, the Temple team noted, with little attention paid to research or policy consequences for individuals committing offenses who also are victims.
Shooting victims are often children and young adults. In Philadelphia, the study setting, every year there are roughly 1,200 shootings. Deep poverty is high, contributing to the culture of violence and victimization, the study report noted.
The Study: Design and Results
The purpose of the research was to improve understanding of the help-seeking behavior of those committing offenses who also are victims of violent street assault, while gaining insights on formal and informal networks of support for victims. Ultimately, the goal was to improve the system’s response to violent street victimization.
The research team framed its analysis to measure whether a victim’s criminal history is associated with receipt of services for victims of street crime.
The study was a mixed-method design that yielded quantitative and qualitative data on help-seeking paths of victims. It implemented surveys, interviews, and focus groups of various stakeholders.
The study focused on three stakeholder groups:
- Men and women who were victims of violent street crime.
- If appropriate, one family member or social network member of the victim.
- Victim service providers. Quantitative data were derived from:
- Survey of crime victims, at three points in time.
- Information from networks surrounding the victims, or “ego networks.”
Qualitative data came from:
- Semi-structured interviews with victim service agencies.
- Focus groups with victims and providers.
- Semi-structured victim interviews at three points of time, when possible.
- Semi-structured interviews with members of victim networks.
Eligible study subjects were men and women, between ages 18 and 40, who had suffered a violent injury in a street crime within 12 months of study recruitment. The researchers focused on injuries serious enough to warrant hospital treatment — whether or not the victim sought or received such treatment. For study purposes, the definition of violence excluded violence perpetrated in a dating or romantic relationship. In the end, 103 violent crime victims took part in the survey.
Victim status — separate from the status of having committed offenses — was an eligibility criterion of the study. The Temple team reported, however, that an overwhelming majority of participating victims were found to be represented in the victim-offender overlap. On average, participants had been arrested 3.6 times.
Excluding the handful of subjects with no arrest record, the participant average was six arrests.
Only 3.9% of the sample had accessed state victim compensation services, and nearly three-quarters of the sample (72.82%) reported they had no knowledge of victim compensation assistance.
Lack of awareness also was key to victims’ reported failure to engage victim advocacy and court services. Half of the sample did not know advocacy services were available, and one quarter (25.24%) did not know they were eligible for support through court processes.
In general, victim-offender responses when asked why they had not accessed various victim services, the study said, “were overwhelmingly split between ‘didn’t know’ and ‘didn’t need,’ with on average, more indicating they didn’t know services existed in the victim services’ sector, versus ‘didn’t need’ for counseling and mental health treatment.”
One key focus area of the study was the impact of police response to a violent incident, with a seriously injured victim, on the likelihood of receipt of victim services. The study did find that cases of serious victim injury from street crime, where a police officer responded to the scene and the victim went to the hospital, represented two-fifths of the victim sample (39%). Roughly half of those violent incidents were reported to the police, the study found, with victims initiating less than half of those calls.
The study data established that in half of all incidents when police were called and responded to a violent crime, that police response was associated with better odds of receipt of any of the four victim services — or more precisely, that police non-response is associated with worse odds of receipt of victim services. Yet again, even counting incidents in which police responded, in the end only 16% of the sample accessed any of the four key services.
The Temple team’s qualitative and network analyses were ongoing, as was its qualitative/quantitative integrated analysis, the report stated. For 11 of the victims in the study sample, no arrest data were available, the report stated. As a result, the rest of the study population’s mean arrest rate was assigned to those 11 victims.
Only one of the three planned waves of data from interviews was included.
The researchers’ examination of how the actions of first responders affect both victims’ receipt of key post-injury services and victims’ own help-seeking behavior will require further research, the report stated. The data leave no doubt that violent crime victims who fall within the victim-offender overlap very infrequently receive the post-injury services available to them. In many instances, lack of awareness prevents victim help-seeking. The study report emphasized the need for victim support from formal institutions, such as criminal justice, health, and mental health service entities. That support may be suppressed, the report suggested, by those institutions’ alignment with an adversarial, dichotomized model generally not supportive of “bad” offenders, even when they are crime victims.
About This Article
The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2016-V3-GX-0009, awarded to Temple University. This article is based on the grantee final report “The Victim-Offender Overlap: Examining Police and Service System Networks of Response among Violent Street Conflicts” (April 2020), by C. Roman, C. Harding, H. Klein, L. Hamilton, and J. Koehnlein.
[note 1] S. Singer, “Victims of Serious Violence and Their Criminal Behavior: Subcultural Theory and Beyond,” Violence and Victims 1 (1986): 61-70, https://doi.org/10.1891/0886-6708.1.1.61.
[note 2] Proceedings from NIJ’s Technical Working Group on Violent Victimization Research, National Institute of Justice, Washington, D.C., meeting notes, (December 2-3, 2014): 12.
[note 3] E.g., Elizabeth Quinn DeValve, “A Qualitative Exploration of the Effects of Crime Victimization for victims of personal crime,” Applied Psychology in Criminal Justice 1, no. 2 (2005): 71-89; Viola Schreiber, Babette Renneberg, and Andreas Maercker, “Seeking Psychosocial Car After Interpersonal Violence: An Integrative Model,” Violence and Victims 24, no. 3 (2009): 322-336.
[note 4] Marvin Wolfgang, Patterns in Criminal Homicide, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1958).
[note 5] Shelley Bradbury, “Gang Violence: The Few Who Shoot,” The Chattanooga Times Free Press, May 29, 2016.
[note 6] Mark T. Berg et al., “The Victim-Offender Overlap in Context: Examining the Role of Neighborhood Street Culture,” Criminology 50 (2012): 359-90.
[note 7] Mark T. Berg et al., “The Victim-Offender Overlap in Context: Examining the Role of Neighborhood Street Culture,” Criminology 50 (2012): 359-90.