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When Victims Become Defendants

15 years ago an innocent 12 year old boy got a computer for Christmas. He put it in his bedroom, because it was his, and he could do what he wanted. Soon enough the young boy learned about chat rooms and found online friends. He met interesting friends - he thought. Those friends talked about things he didn't know about, like sex, and pornography. He was being groomed. Soon he would secretly meet one of the men he was talking to online. Suprisingly the man was in his 50's. The boy suffered a childhood of sexual abuse.

A few weeks ago the police showed up at that boys home. They weren't there because they found out about the abuse and wanted his help to punish the man for what he had done. They were there to arrest the boy. The police say that twice in the past eighteen months he had clicked on child pornography. He faces state or federal charges for child pornography. He could face state or federal prison Federal Crimes, registration as a sex offender Sex Crimes, probation and a permanent criminal record.

There is little doubt that mistreatment leads to a higher risk that the victim will commit crimes in the future. Neglect, physical abuse and sexual abuse all lead to increased likelihood of criminal activity in the future. There have been several terms given to the findings like "cycle of violence" and "intergenerational transmission of violence". See ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/abuse.pdf

The question that is repeatedly presented to lawyers is: should a defendant be treated differently if they were the victim of a crime themselves? Is it fair for two people to commit the same crime and be treated differently because of their background? Some people would say the background is irrelevant - the criminal act is the same and punishment must always be the same - anything else is unjust. They would say that being lenient on victims authorizes illegal behavior. They may say that if prior victims are treated more leniently it unfairly punishes those who were not victims in the past. I agree that violence against others is never justified by a defendant's past victimization.

I think past victimization is a relevant consideration. No two criminal cases are the same and they should all be treated individually. The potential outcome in a criminal case affected by the jurisdiction and judge assigned to a particular case (see How do Judges sentence?). Trying to treat each person accused of a crime "the same' is not only impossible, it is a disservice to the criminal justice system. To me, everything is relevant. The reason that a crime is committed central to the issue of fairness. I think most people agree.

In my opinion past victims are more likely to be good candidates for alternative sentences like probation. Self awareness that can be provided by counseling is more likely to be palatable for all involved when there is documented proof of victimization and/or the crime in question is relatively minor. It is difficult to argue that society is not served by treating the root of the problem for the abused, instead of simply punishing the action and leaving them to commit another crime in the future.