Her Brother's Murder Drove Janet Barkas to Investigate the Sorry Plight of Crime Victims
04/30/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT
"When someone is a victim of a crime," says 30-year-old criminologist Janet Barkas, "he and his family are often treated with less sensitivity and respect than the criminal." The complaint has certainly been heard before, but Barkas brings a special poignancy to her conclusions in her recently published book Victims (Scribners, $10.95). Ten years ago her elder brother was murdered, a tragedy that led her into a study of how and why the targets of crime have become a persecuted minority. Born in New York City to a dentist father and kindergarten teacher mother, Barkas graduated from Hofstra University in 1970 with a degree in fine arts and social sciences and in 1977 earned an M.A. in criminal justice from Goddard College in Plain field, Vt. A Ph.D. candidate, she teaches juvenile justice at Temple University in Philadelphia and coordinates a crime prevention center at Marymount Manhattan College. For the Public Affairs Committee, she has just written a 28-page pamphlet, Protecting Yourself Against Crime. She talked with Patricia Burstein of PEOPLE about the plight of victims.
Why did you write your book?
My brother Seth was 23 when he was brutally murdered by two teenagers who demanded he give them a dime. The book was a way of facing his death and also trying to improve conditions for victims who survive.
What happened to the killers?
There was a grand jury indictment. But the case never came to trial because the boy who allegedly wielded the knife had already been convicted and sentenced for a second, unrelated murder. The accomplice was given immunity from prosecution in return for testimony about Seth's case. Both teenagers were members of a gang.
How did you research your book?
I spent four years corresponding with and interviewing hundreds of criminals, victims, judges, police, lawyers, district attorneys, journalists, parole and probation officers.
What was your major finding?
Crime victims are a forgotten minority to which one in every 19 Americans belongs. These are people who have been robbed or whose homes have been burglarized, who have been raped or assaulted or murdered. Yet they are not a cohesive minority unified by race, religion, habitat or language. Crime victims are usually random targets joined only by fate.
How are victims discriminated against?
Like other minorities, they are considered lazy or stupid and are blamed for their own misfortune. They are accused of provoking the criminal and either not resisting enough or resisting too much. They are regarded as "losers," second-class citizens.
Could you give an example?
People will say that a rape victim shouldn't have gone to a movie at night. When someone is burglarized, he is inevitably blamed for not having the right lock on his door. It is easier for other tenants to pin the blame on him. Otherwise the whole building would feel vulnerable. When this happens, I start to wonder, "Who is the victim and who is the criminal?"
Don't some sociologists hold that criminals are really "victims" of society themselves?
That puts the cart before the horse. I understand that parental neglect or social inequity may be factors, but I also still believe most criminals have a choice. Crime victims do not—they are randomly selected.
What about psychotic criminals?
True, there is a small percentage who are labeled, in psychiatric terms, psychotic or schizophrenic. In these few instances, the criminal is driven in a way that he or she has no choice.
Has there been an increase in murders committed by strangers?
Yes. In 1970, 28 percent of slayings involved people who did not know each other. By 1977, more than 40 percent of all murders were committed by strangers.
The penalty for murder is usually 25 years to life, but because of plea bargaining and indeterminate sentencing, the actual time served is probably 10 to 20 years—the same as someone would serve for armed robbery or rape. So to a criminal's way of thinking, it's better to kill the victim and decrease the chance of being caught and identified.
How many crime victims are there?
In 1977 there were 10,935,777 Americans who were targets of crimes against themselves and their property. But this statistic does not really give the whole picture.
Left out are uncounted victims like my parents, sister, sister-in-law, nephew, my brother's employer and society, to which he would have contributed. My brother was listed as an aggravated assault, but when he died two days later, he was reclassified a homicide. What if someone dies five years later from an injury related to crime? There is no way to correct the statistics unless his family files for compensation.
Are victims compensated for the crimes committed against them?
Very little. Nationwide the funds allocated to the criminal justice system—for police, offenders and prosecution—total $21.5 billion, but only one percent of that amount goes to victims. Only about half of the states have set up publicly funded crime victim compensation programs.
What happens in the other states?
Compensation can range from local court-administered restitution to life or health insurance compensation to charity. In Denver, Atlanta and Portland, Oreg., for example, there are local restitution programs where, as a condition of parole or in lieu of imprisonment, the criminal must pay the victim or his family. Restitution is a growing trend in juvenile cases today.
How would a widow of a murder victim get compensation?
If she can prove that her husband's income was necessary to her survival, she can apply for money from the state crime victims compensation board. The amounts involved are not very high. In New York, for example, she could receive $20,000 maximum over a lifetime.
Do many victims seek compensation?
Most middle-class victims view it as welfare or a handout and do not apply. The paperwork also involves declaring all your assets and submitting to an investigation—which some consider another form of victimization. Less than two percent of those eligible file for aid in New York State.
Are there self-help groups for victims?
There are four: the National Organization of Victims Assistance in Hattiesburg, Miss.; Crime Victims Rights Organization, Inc., New York; National Association for Crime Victims Rights, Inc., Portland, Oreg., and the Victims Program of Handgun Control, Inc., Washington, D.C. It's hardly a vast number, considering the hundreds of organizations for ex-offenders.
Why are victims not more vocal?
There is nothing to be gained by saying you are a victim. It is an experience that you want to put behind you. You do not want it to become a life-style.
What do you think should be done for crime victims?
They should be given financial assistance, peer or professional counseling, legal advice, prompt return of property and medical aid. All this is precisely what accused or convicted criminals get as a matter of course.
What safety hints do you suggest to avoid becoming a victim?
The trick is to be victimized in a small enough way so you can survive. First, realize everyone is vulnerable. Second, take all possible precautions to minimize your risk and maximize the criminal's difficulties. Get the best locks for your door. Stay out of areas that are known to be dangerous. If you live alone, don't advertise it on your door. Third, and probably most crucial, become involved in crime prevention programs.
Do TV and movies glamorize crime?
I think they make celebrities out of criminals. Remember the Bonnie and Clyde fad? They were vicious, mean killers. Yet everyone wanted to dress like them. Can you name the victims of Richard Speck or Son of Sam? Yet you know the murderers.
What about capital punishment?
The whole idea repels me. It makes a mockery of my belief that human beings do have some control over an impulse to kill. Why should the state commit murder?
Do you own a gun?
No, and I stopped dating someone who had one. By and large, I'm against society and even police having guns. When guns are not readily available to anybody, homicide rates are lower.