Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 2(6) (1994) 156-158
There is an exciting new vocabulary sure to make teaching more interesting. "Media amnesia," "negative peacekeeping," "crime story recycling," the "violence of poverty," and others are discussed by Elias in what should be considered a basic introduction to victimology text.
Elias writes in a logical, common sense, easy-to-read style that will give students the fundamentals that they need to explore fully the "other side" of victimology. The author starts at the root -- initial assumptions about crime and criminals. He points out flaws in definitions and images that create problems in interpretation that are only distorted and exploited by the media. The major contribution of this work is that it creates a "square one" for the student to begin studying victimization. There is an excellent summary of victims' programs across the U.S. and the broader social movements that indirectly influence macro victimization issues (i.e., sexism, racism). The work includes a good summary of important legislation and a chronology of funding sources.
The critical perspective of the book challenges the American status quo in victimology, raising serious questions about our narrow focus compared to international concepts of victimization. The consequences of such a limited outlook appear to be a long history of anemic and bulemic policy agendas. Elias holds a mirror to these policies and allows students to see them for what they really are. It is not a pretty sight. Some of the discussions you will want to have with your students are as follows:
a) the conflict between creative sentencing and predictable, uniform sentences -- what do we want? In our society, particularly in our discipline, we fluctuate on the desirability of mandatory anything. Victims, like offenders, are all different and mandatory restitution may not be appropriate in all cases. Aahh, the "M" word; ironically perhaps, the author uses it in both a discussion of the problems and the solutions.
b) the process of creating victims -- how changes in laws may create a group of victims who are "railroaded" through the criminal justice system with less protections, using lower levels of proof. Students should explore why victims' movements have become associated with the rhetoric of anti-rights and tough punishments. Is it part of the nature of the victim to just accept every "benefit" that is [End page 156] thrown their way by the political establishment it beyond the ability of victims to pick and choose only those enactments that directly and logically improve their station in life? Should victims write legislation? (The California "Three Strikes" legislation was authored by a murdered girl's father). If not, then why is it alright for politicians pandering to victims to do so? Along the same lines, can we tell if the media has taken a position in support of such legislation? Students should be aware of the politics of the "sound bite" and Elias provides a substantial appendix of news articles that students can interpret for themselves. Recognition of the underlying policy motives of the media is a healthy accomplishment for students; the earlier in their careers, the better.
c) the notion of being "victimized by the environment" -- while a logical concept to criminologists (particularly anyone who has read Mikal Gilmore's Shot in the Heart) -- is not politically popular. The public seems to have developed a strict "No Excuses" frame of mind ("guns don't kill people"). Despite the state's inability to obtain a conviction, few really feel sorry for the Menendez brothers. People are frustrated with victimization as an "excuse" perhaps because it greys the separation between good guys (white hats) and bad guys (black hats). The average person's preference for clear-cut distinctions demonstrates how difficult it is for anyone to understand the realities of crime -- that in many cases victims and offenders sit on a continuum separated only by degrees of guilt. Remember how fast we dumped Ellie Nessler as a victimized mother folk-hero once it was reported that she had a "drug history?" Try this at home, the same people who see crimes as having clearly distinctive offenders and victims also subscribe to theories about the "cycle of violence" -- how is this so?
d) the case study Elias provides on the drug war as a victimizing policy provides students with an excellent example of "how to" analyze something we may take for granted in one context (e.g., a law enforcement or drug issues class) in an alternate framework -- victimology. Students should be encouraged to take other policies and critique them from a victimological perspective.
This book is excellent for students and for anyone preparing to teach a course in victimology. Otherwise, scholars may be somewhat put off by the lack of data or [End page 157] research to support the various arguments ("Mainstream law enforcement has met criminal violence with a massive barrage of official violence" or "For those who remain in prison, the experience should be made productive; otherwise, more rather than less crime will result" or "Most prisoners initially are not a threat to society, but they become increasingly dangerous the longer they are imprisoned."). While plenty of writers in this area are cited, which is beneficial for students, their works are not analyzed or critiqued in any meaningful way.
The last two chapters are somewhat repetitious, reiterating material from earlier sections. Overall, I would award the book a three on the gavel scale for its insight and its refreshing approach to the study of criminal justice policy. Thoughtful study of the political manipulation of crime victims should be only the beginning. This perspective should also be applied to many other areas, including analyses of crime data, research organizations, juvenile interventions, and, oh yes, crime bills.
California State University, San Bernardino
Criminal Justice Department [End page 158]