Mitchell R. Morrissey
Denver District Attorney
Unit 1:
An Overview of Criminal Victimization

: To provide a broad introduction to criminal victimization including definitions and impact.


“Victim Impact: Listen and Learn” (This video includes case scenarios of 14 victims of crime. Total running time is 57 minutes, but instructors may show as few or as many segments as they choose. The video may be ordered by calling the Office for victims of Crime Resource Center at 1-800-627-6872

Reading: God and the Victim
Chapter 1: “Finding God in the Wake of Crime” (Lisa Lampman &
Michelle Shattuck)
Chapter 5: “Go and Do Likewise: The Church’s Role in Caring for
Crime Victims” (Harold Trulear)
Chapter 6: “Victimization and Healing: the Biblical View”
(Elizabeth Achtemeier)
Chapter 13: “The Spiritual Problem of Crime: A Pastor’s Call”
(Lee A. Earl)

Suggested Reading: Trauma and Recovery – Judith Lewis Herman
Chapter 2: “Terror”

(1) (Use this exercise if the class period is long enough to include a break.)
  • Students write the name of someone who is very significant to them (on a 3 X 5 card). Write their name in small letters at the bottom.
  • Collect the cards: dismiss the students for their break. While they are out, place the cards randomly on the board or wall with masking tape. Over each card, place a picture of a gun, a wrecked car, a fist, and other symbols of crimes that have been collected from newspapers and magazines, but do not include severe sexual crimes or deaths. Then put plain pieces of paper over each one so that each entire picture is covered.
  • When the students return, tell them that some terrible things happened wile they were out. Then, one by one, remove the cover sheets with a statement like, “I’m sorry, Tom, but your wife has been involved in a hit-and run. She is apparently OK, but your car is totaled. She is being checked by paramedics now.”
  • Ask the students to silently make note of their reactions:
    i. How does your body feel?
    ii. Are you able to think clearly?
    iii. What do you want to do?

(2) A shorter exercise – Ask students to wad up a piece of notebook paper as tightly as they can. Then ask them to smooth it out, giving them several prompts to try as hard as they can to get the wrinkles out. Can you make the paper look like it used to? Explain that the paper is a metaphor for a victim of a serious crime. They may again become functional (the paper can still be written upon) and lead productive lives – but they are changed.

The Impact of Victimization

Trauma is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) as an experience in which both of the following is present:

  • The person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others; and
  • The person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror.

Judith Herman writes, “Trauma calls into question basic human relationships. It breaches attachments of family, friendship, love, and community. It shatters the construction of the self that is formed and sustained in relation to others. It undermines the belief systems that give meaning to human experience. It violates the victim’s faith in a natural or divine order and casts the victim into a state of existential crisis.”i

Implicitly excluded from the definition of trauma are more ordinary life crises such as bereavement, divorce, and serious illness. However, the sudden, unexpected death of a spouse or child would qualify as trauma.ii

B.L. Greeniii has specified seven dimensions of traumatic experiences:
  • Threat to life or limb;
  • Severe physical harm or injury;
  • Receipt of intentional harm or injury;
  • Exposure to the grotesque; or violent or sudden death of a loved one;
  • Witnessing or learning of violence to a loved one;
  • Learning of exposure to a noxious agent;
  • Causing death or severe harm to another.

Criminal victimization may include any of the above dimensions when the traumatic event was also a violation of a federal, state or local law. By virtue of this designation, the traumatic event has the potential to involve the criminal justice system.

Beyond the trauma, criminal victimization involves many other consequences:

Destruction of Property: Victims of property crimes like burglary and identity fraud still feel emotionally and physically violated. They lose their sense of safety when they realize that their personal boundaries, space, privacy, and property have been violated. Victims of property crimes are often frustrated by their attempts to reclaim or replace lost property. Occasionally, recovered possessions are held by law enforcement while an investigation is on-going. This experience contributes to a victim’s feeling of being out of control.

Loss of One’s Ability to Work: Criminal acts which cause physical injury, many times impact a victim’s ability to work. Likewise, the emotional and mental distress following a traumatic event may cause loss of work days, loss of the ability to perform one’s job, or even force a career change. For example, a person who is assaulted after dark may no longer be able to work a night job without panic attacks. A person assaulted while using public transportation may no longer feel safe using that mode of transportation. When crime occurs in the home or work place, the continual physical reminders can trigger emotional reactions that can be overwhelming.

Loss of Self-Esteem: Self-blame and guilt are natural reactions to criminal victimization. These self-incriminating feelings can negatively impact the victim’s self-esteem. Janoff-Bulmaniv proposed that there may be two types of self-blame, one representing an adaptive response, the other a maladaptive response. ‘Behavioral self-blame’ involves attributions to one’s enduring personality characteristics and is maladaptive (cf. Miller & Porter). The primary distinction between these two self-attributions is the perceived modifiability and controllability of the factor blamed; behaviors are generally regarded as modifiable through one’s own efforts, whereas personality or character traits are generally regarded as stable and relatively unchangeable.”v

Loss of Personal Boundaries: Both consciously and unconsciously, human beings maintain physical and emotional boundaries. These boundaries offer a sense of personal protection that crime violates. When personal boundaries are violated, people can lose their sense of equilibrium. In order to feel more protected from future violation, many victims increase caution outside of their homes. In one study, compared to before the crime, 25% of victims went out less often during the day, and 38% went out less at night. When they did go out, 39% stated that they were more likely to avoid particular places, and 45% were more suspicious of people on the street.”vi

Loss of Self-trust: Victimization can cause people to question their judgment and ability to take care of themselves and others. This may be especially difficult for elderly victims who are struggling to maintain their independence and the confidence of others.

Attack on Life Values: When a victim is harmed by a criminal act, the person may begin to question the goodness of humankind. According to Charles Figley,vii

“Victims no longer perceive themselves as safe and secure in a benign environment. They have experienced a malevolent world. In human-induced victimizations, such as criminal assaults, this is particularly distressing, for the victim is no longer able to feel secure in the world of other people. To great extent, coping with victimization involves coming to terms with these shattered assumptions and reestablishing a conceptual system that will allow the victim to once again function effectively. While victims are not likely to ever again view the world as wholly benevolent, or themselves as entirely invulnerable, they will still need to work on establishing a view of the world as not wholly malevolent and of themselves as not uniquely vulnerable to misfortune.”

Blaming: Perhaps nothing comes as a greater shock to a victim of crime than when caring individuals insinuate that the victim was somehow “at fault” for the crime that was committed against them. Loved ones, as well as on-lookers can insinuate that a victim should have done something to prevent the crime. “Why didn’t he try to get away?” “She should have yelled louder.” “I told her to lock the doors.” Certainly, crime prevention measures can avert some crime, but not all. Victims, plagued with thoughts of “If only I had…” already blame themselves for what happened, so someone else’s blame feels over-damning. Unconditional support and acceptance can be crucial to a victim’s journey to regain a positive, confident sense of self.

Loss of Social Connections: Social ostracism as a result of societal judgment of crime victims may contribute to the loss of important social connections and support. Historically, social ostracism has been particularly prevalent toward victims of sexual crimes. Unfortunately, this continues to be a significant reality for many victims who contract HIV/AIDS as a result of a sexual assault.

Loss of Property and Financial Stability: The economic losses caused by crime in America are staggering. The rising prevalence and ease of identity theft and white collar crime may push economic losses to epidemic proportions. It is not uncommon for people to respond to a victim of property crime and identity theft by saying, “Things can be replaced; people can’t.” While there is truth to the statement, it minimizes the experience of this kind of loss. Someone who loses valued life savings in a fraudulent investment scheme may suffer financially for the rest of his or her life.

Crisis of Faith: Many victims of violence face a crisis of faith, especially those whose theology believes that God designs everything that happens. It takes time, patience and spiritual support for victims of crime to be able to incorporate their experience into their theology.


  • Victimization doesn’t stop with the criminal act. How is it manifest in the weeks and months following the incident?
  • What are some of the struggles for the loved one of crime victims?
  • What causes a victim’s sense of loss of control?
  • Why do crimes that do not include personal violence cause such distress?

iHerman, J. (1992). Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books (p. 51).
iiMorrison, J. (1992). DSM-IV made easy: The clinician's guide to diagnosis. New York: The Guilford Press. (p.269).
iiiGreen, B.L. (1993). “Identifying survivors at risk: Trauma and Stressors across Events.” In J.P. Wilson & B. Raphael (Eds.), International Handbook of Traumatic Stress Syndromes (pp. 135-144). New York: Plenum Press.
ivJanoff-Bulman, R. (1992). Shattered Assumptions: Towards a new psychology of trauma. New YorK The Free Press.
vFigley, Charles. Editor. Trauma And Its Wake. Brunner/Mazel, Inc.; New York; New York, 1985. Page 29
viFigley, Charles. Editor. Trauma And Its Wake. Brunner/Mazel, Inc.; New York; New York, 1985. Page 29
viiFigley, C. (Ed.). (1985).Trauma and its wake. New York: Brunner/Mazel, Inc. (p. 29).