Most people who choose careers in criminal justice or criminology do so because they want to make a difference and to help other people. Some of the most vulnerable people and those most in need of help are victims of crimes. For criminal justice job seekers who have a passion for assisting those most in need, a career as a victim advocate may be exactly what you're looking for.
Short History of Victim Advocacy
Until recently, nearly the entire history of criminology was focused on studying the criminal: why he commits crime, where he does it, who he does it with, and how to catch him, punish him and stop him from doing it again. Though certainly law enforcement officers and prosecutors were sympathetic to crime victims, the focus of their energies most often went toward the prevention and prosecution of crime, with little concern or understanding of what the actual victims felt or needed.
This began to change after World War II when victimology emerged as an area of interest and study for sociologists. A subset of criminology, which studies crime and its causes, victimology advanced the study of crime's effects on victims.
Over time, researchers began to uncover relationships between successful - or unsuccessful - prosecutions, and the level of trust victims and witnesses had in their law enforcement and judicial systems. Crimes were going unreported, and witnesses were failing to cooperate when they felt as though their needs weren't being met or even considered.
At the same time, crime was beginning to be viewed partially a result of the failure of the state to properly address issues that lead to it. It helped advance the notion that victims were deserving of compensation for their physical and emotional losses.
The 1970s and '80s saw the development of advocacy programs, helping to place the emphasis of criminal prosecution on the victims. These programs served to help victims get compensation and closure and lead to the rise of victim advocacy as a vital career field within the criminal justice system.
Job Functions and Work Environment
Victim advocates work within nearly every component of the criminal justice system. Law enforcement agencies employ them to serve as liaisons to investigators as they work cases. Prosecutors and district attorneys maintain victim advocacy offices to help victims and witnesses navigate their way through the legal process. The courts use victim advocates to help determine issues regarding restitution and sentencing.
Perhaps the most important function victim advocates serve is that of providing support and guidance to victims of crimes. The investigative and legal process can be very confusing and hard to understand for those outside of the industry. Moreover, for police officers, detectives, and attorneys, investigation, and prosecution of crime is an everyday occurrence, whereas for victims it is often their only interaction with the criminal justice process. This disconnect can sometimes foster poor communication and misunderstandings that victims advocates can bridge and mend.
They provide sensitivity to the process that may otherwise not exist. This can be evidenced in their careful handling of delicate situations such as orchestrating court hearings to minimize a victim's contact with a suspect or in their caring counsel.
Victim advocates may offer counseling services, make arrangements and accommodations for court proceedings and give advice and support throughout the entire process. They assist victims and witnesses in receiving compensation and help them better understand what to expect during the investigation and prosecution of crimes. Victim advocates also provide training and advice to law enforcement agencies and officers on how to provide better services, communications and assistance to victims.
The job of a victim advocate often includes:
- Counseling victims and witnesses.
- Case management assistance for victims and witnesses.
- Arranging accommodations for meetings and court hearings.
- Serving as the point of contact between victims and criminal justice entities.
- Fostering cooperation between law enforcement, prosecution, victims, and witnesses.
Victim advocates work very closely with law enforcement officials, as well as attorneys, judges, and other criminal justice professionals. They may be called to give talks and to work closely with other groups and organizations, such as domestic violence shelters or child advocacy groups.
Advocates may work with both children and adults. They are often called upon to respond to scenes of crimes to provide counseling services and advice immediately. Many states require that victims and witnesses are provided information about their local victim advocate offices in the event of a crime.
Education And Skill Requirements
Education requirements may vary from state to state or even district to district. Generally, however, aspiring victim advocates should hold a minimum of a bachelor's degree in criminal justice or a four-year criminology degree, as well as some training in counseling and psychology. A master's degree is often preferred.
They need to be knowledgeable of the criminal justice system and of the legal process, and especially of the processes within their district or circuit. Victim advocates need to have strong interpersonal communication skills and be able to communicate effectively with people of all levels of education and background. They must be sympathetic, understanding and patient.
Many employers require prior experience in a counseling or advocacy role. It can be accomplished through volunteer work at a shelter or other service organization or through past employment in social work, education or even law enforcement.
Job Growth and Salary Outlook
While victim advocacy is still in its relative infancy as a profession, opportunities may become more available as offices expand and evolve their roles. Aspiring advocates may need to be willing to move to find work, but nationwide, there remains solid potential for employment.
According to data from Indeed.com, victim advocates can earn between $24,000 and $70,000 per year. On average, advocates earn around $53,000 annually.
Is a Career Right for You?
Patience and compassion are the name of the game in victim advocacy. Often, advocates must deal with people at the worst and hardest times of their lives. It takes sympathy and empathy and a very caring heart.
It is not a job for everyone; it takes a very special person to take on the role. However, if your goal is to help others and provide the compassion, the assistance, and advice they need to move forward, then a job as a victim advocate may just be the perfect criminology career for you.