The Victim-or-Perpetrator Dichotomy harms both those who commit crime and those who suffer it. 

It is well known that those who cause harm have often been the victims of harm themselves, but the simplistic Victim-or-Perpetrator dichotomy persists. In this piece Kibble’s Dan Johnson explores the prevalence of ACE’s within the Scottish prison population; the high levels of abuse, adversity and neglect mirror the experiences of young people who engage with Kibble’s SAFE and IVY services. Challenging though it can be, surely it’s time to develop a more holistic understanding of offending behaviour in order to break this cycle?

The distinction between victims and perpetrators is a well-established way of understanding crime. Someone does harm to someone else, and justice should be served. This makes intuitive sense to almost anyone. It draws a distinction between victim and perpetrator that is hard to argue with.

Unfortunately, this dichotomy comes with problems that have implications both for the way we support those harmed by crime, and the way we deliver justice and prevention to those committing it.

The categorisation of victims and perpetrators for individual crimes can easily lead to the general assumption that those seen as victims are therefore unable to commit crime. In turn, those that are perpetrators, could not be victims. The dichotomy can lead us to think that a person should be put into either category, and never both. If someone commits a crime, they should not be seen as a victim.

Before we explore this in more detail it is essential to stress that the harm caused through crime is immeasurable and far ranging. This article does not wish to question that, nor suggest that there should be any responsibility at all placed on those experiencing crime.

Instead, this article argues that the harmful effects of crime are felt by everyone, including those who also commit crime. The logic behind this may be simple but it is less clear in practice. For example, if we were to ask the general public what the words  “offender” and “perpetrator” prompt, many may describe violent and hardened criminals who are all bad. A study by  Haegerich et al (2013) that explored American juror’s views on juvenile offenders found something similar to this with stereotypes of “super-predators” being found: simple 2D impressions of people showing only one criminal side. A view that emphasises the harm they pose and nothing else.

So how true is such a view? Fortunately there is research that can add some more depth and detail regarding those who commit crime.

Let’s look at Scottish prisoners as our starting point. In the most recent Prisoner’s Survey from 2019, completed by 30% of prisoners in Scottish prisons, 47% said that an adult in their home had hit, beat, kicked or physically hurt them. Additionally, 40% said that an adult in their home had slapped, hit, kicked or beat each other up. In short, Scotland’s prisoners report being harmed and suffering crime as children. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) movement has been conveying this idea for a while now in Scotland and these rates won’t be a surprise to many.

It is perhaps easier to accept that an adult offender experienced harm as a child than it is to see them as a victim in adulthood. The statistics are clear on that too though: 37% indicated they have been a victim of knife crime. Of those who reported carrying a knife, 43% stated they carried a knife because they have previously been threatened and 34% attributed carrying a knife to the fact that they did not feel safe where they live. 11% said they had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder prior to coming into prison. These are compelling statistics although perhaps should be taken with caution as they are purely self-report via survey.

More evidence of the crime experienced by Scottish prisoners comes from research by Karatzias (2018) on women in Scottish prisons. Of the 88 women sampled, 51% reported childhood sexual abuse. They also reported victimisation as adults including physical assault (75%), unwanted sexual experience (54%), and assault with a weapon (52%). Over half (58%) met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.

When it comes to young people there is a similar theme.  Research commissioned by the Scottish Prison Service and cited by Robinson et al (2017) show that young people in HMYOI Polmont reported multiple types of trauma exposure. The young people reported being sexually abused (10%), physically abused (15%), fearing that they or someone close to them might be badly hurt (58%), being physically assaulted/beaten badly in the community (64%), threatened with a weapon (76%), witnessing serious violence in the neighbourhood (74%), and witnessing violence in the home (22%). The vast majority of young people reported more than one traumatic event.

Similar findings have come through Scotland’s IVY project. This service provides psychological and risk advice, assessment and treatment to young people and the professionals supporting them. They have found that of the vast majority of these children have experienced adversity,  abuse or crime.

Similarly, a new service run by Kibble that provides systemic family psychotherapy and psychological treatment for young people who have experienced crime, the Safe service, has found that over 50% of the young people have also been involved in committing crime.

Statistics like this blur the distinction between victim and offender: many of those who are convicted of crimes have also suffered harm through crime themselves. In fact, the rates of harm they have experienced can be higher than those who have not committed crime. Research by Peltonen et al (2020) demonstrates this clearly with a Finnish cohort and there is similar research in the UK by Lewis et al (2019).

If we allow ourselves to consider offenders as people who are also victims,  the implications are numerous. It could have far reaching changes for the way we prevent crime and respond to crime as well as how we provide treatment and care to those convicted of it.

It may, understandably, be difficult for some to accept though. The highly emotive nature of crime complicates an already complex moral and ethical area. That said, if the simple statistical argument for seeing those who offend as both offender and victim is not convincing enough, there is another powerful reason. There is a growing body of research that suggests that crime is rooted in and driven by the harm an offender has experienced. The ACE’s research has established an association or correlation between adversity and later harmful behaviour but more research is beginning to suggest there are causal roles at play, such as UK research from Richmond-Rakerd et al (2019).

As the review of mental health services in HMYOI Polmont by the Scottish Prison Inspectorate concluded, “Children involved in a pattern of offending, or who are involved in more serious offences, are almost always our most vulnerable, victimised and traumatised young people”.

If we do not see offenders as both those who have committed crime and those who have been victimised we may miss an opportunity to intervene with some of the root causes of crime. Even worse, we may even exacerbate them and raise risk further. There is evidence that our criminal justice system can be counterproductive and make crime more likely. For example, in a robust twin-study, Motz et al (2020) found that punitive responses such as spending a night in prison, being issued an anti-social behaviour order (ASBO), or having an official record actually promoted delinquency, rather than deterred it.

Instead of the victim and offender dichotomy, we need to be able to hold in mind that offenders can be both. This does not mean they should be excused from justice, but it does suggest we should look at an offender’s own victimisation experiences when understanding and explaining their crime. Understanding a crime by looking at the whole picture of someone who has committed crime, including their victimisation,  may help us identify responses that will not only respect their rights as victims, but also reduce the likelihood of their crime repeating.

If you want to refer to the IVY or Safe project please click the link below. Both are national projects funded by the Scottish Government and are free to access.


About the Author: Dan Johnson is Clinical Director at Kibble Education and Care Centre. You can find him on Twitter at @danjohnso


17th Scottish Prisoner Survey, 2020 

Connolly, E. J., & Kavish, N. (2019). The causal relationship between childhood adversity and developmental trajectories of delinquency: A consideration of genetic and environmental confounds. Journal of youth and adolescence, 48(2), 199-211.

Haegerich, T. M., Salerno, J. M., & Bottoms, B. L. (2013). Are the effects of juvenile offender stereotypes maximized or minimized by jury deliberation? Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 19(1), 81–97.

Karatzias, T., Power, K., Woolston, C., Apurva, P., Begley, A., Mirza, K., … & Purdie, A. (2018). Multiple traumatic experiences, post‐traumatic stress disorder and offending behaviour in female prisoners. Criminal behaviour and mental health, 28(1), 72-84.

Lewis, S. J., Arseneault, L., Caspi, A., Fisher, H. L., Matthews, T., Moffitt, T. E., … & Danese, A. (2019). The epidemiology of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder in a representative cohort of young people in England and Wales. The Lancet Psychiatry6(3), 247-256.

Motz, R. T., Barnes, J. C., Caspi, A., Arseneault, L., Cullen, F. T., Houts, R., … & Moffitt, T. E. (2020). Does contact with the justice system deter or promote future delinquency? Results from a longitudinal study of British adolescent twins. Criminology, 58(2), 307-335.

Peltonen, K., Ellonen, N., Pitkänen, J., Aaltonen, M., & Martikainen, P. (2020). Trauma and violent offending among adolescents: a birth cohort study. J Epidemiol Community Health, 74(10), 845-850.

Richmond-Rakerd, L. S., Caspi, A., Arseneault, L., Baldwin, J. R., Danese, A., Houts, R. M., & Moffitt, T. E. (2019). Adolescents who self-harm and commit violent crime: testing early-life predictors of dual harm in a longitudinal cohort study. American journal of psychiatry176(3), 186-195.

Sinclair-Gieben, W. (2019 Report On An Expert Review Of The Provision Of Mental Health Services, For Young People Entering And In Custody At HMP YOI Polmont.Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland


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