October 31, 2023
Barriers to Attaining Victim Status
By Mariam El-menshawi
She/Her | Executive Director , California Victim Resource Center
Not everyone who is harmed by crime attains legal victim status, as there are a multitude of barriers that prevent this from happening. Some of the barriers include lack of reporting language, culture, community pressure, and fear of the system. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2022, about two in five (42%) of violent victimization was reported to law enforcement.[i] People from marginalized communities, lower socioeconomic classes, and communities of color are victimized at a higher rate compared to their white, middle-class counterparts. However, cases involving these victims are not thoroughly investigated and prosecuted at the same rate as those involving white, middle-class victims.[ii] When these victims report the crime to law enforcement, they face the additional hurdle of explicit and implicit bias by system players that can lead to the crime victim not attaining legal victim status, and, hence, never having a shot at exercising their legal rights in the criminal justice system.
There is a plethora of scholarly publications and research on the serious issue of racial disparities when it comes to those suspected and charged with crimes. However, there is a lack of scholarly attention and research to whether a victim’s race and socioeconomic class also create inequity and disparity in the criminal justice system. We are at a time in United States history where there is momentum to reform the criminal justice system to make it more equitable, and changes have started to take effect via local policies and legislation.
While this momentum is aimed at addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system, little attention has been paid to the impact that these same disparities have on crime victims. One professor dubbed this “racialized victimization,” which reflects the significant racial disparities in the treatment of Black victims and is revealed in the various stages of the criminal justice system.[iii]
Prosecutors have almost absolute discretion to charge cases, and their charging decisions are sometimes impacted by explicit and implicit bias. One of the ways to address this concern is to remove demographic information (race, age, gender) about the suspect, victim, and witnesses and remove geographic locations when prosecutors are reviewing cases to decide whether to file charges. This is known as “Race Blind Charging” (RBC).
In RBC, the prosecutors reviewing intake cases receive the redacted report. After reviewing the report, the prosecutor answers questions prompted by the software program created by Stanford Computation Policy Lab. Once a charging decision is submitted, the case is unlocked, and the prosecutor can see all the demographic and geographic location details. If they change their decision in any way, they must justify why. The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office in California was the first District Attorney’s Office to build and use a race-redaction algorithm and embed it in their case management system.
The Yolo County District Attorney sponsored Assembly Bill 2778 which recently passed in California that will require the California Attorney General’s Office to implement a “Race Blind Charging” system that all prosecuting offices in California will have to use.[iv] While this is only a small step to break down the tremendous barriers that victims face in attaining legal victim status, it is a step in the right direction and provides a glimmer of hope that all victims can have an equitable chance to attain legal victim status and engage with the criminal justice system.
[i] Criminal Victimization, 2022, BUREAU OF JUSTICE STATISTICS, (Sept. 14, 2023)
[ii] Itay Ravid, Inconspicuous Victims, 25(2) Lewis & Clark Law Review 529 (2021).
[iv] Cal. Penal Code 741