Challenges in Identifying Vulnerability

One of the first things to highlight in this discussion is that just as crime comes at a cost to society, vulnerability has a price too. Failure to identify and respond to the vulnerabilities that arise in criminal justice and policing can be costly for government services. Attention to these costs has conventionally focused on the financial consequences of offending and the burgeoning financial and social costs of punishment—that is, the problem of individual deficits. Yet, this is a simplistic view of the costs of vulnerability, and how vulnerability presents and unfolds in policing encounters. Vulnerability may exist prior to any individual criminal event, or arise during the event. It may be a consequence of the event, or be exacerbated by criminal justice actors (their attitudes and behaviours) and processes (including increased harm to the victim and offender, as well as criminal justice practitioners). At each point, vulnerability unaddressed, or addressed badly costs individuals, their communities, and policing services.

The costs of crime extend beyond the criminal incident to include the familial and community networks affected by crime, as well as fear of crime. Failing to respond to vulnerability in the context of policing and justice is costly for policing organisations in two broad ways: costs to police personnel, and costs to police services. As regards police personnel, failure to adequately deal with police officer vulnerabilities is likely to result in high levels of lost productivity due to injury, ill-health and psychological damage, and the consequential low levels of officer retention (Paton 2006). Costs to police services can result from poor treatment of vulnerable offenders, victims and witnesses, which may result in miscarriages of justice. These costs can weaken trust in the police and hamper their capacity to co-produce law and order.

The compounding effect of a ‘misdiagnosis’ of vulnerability and its cost is the result of the absurdity of abiding by list-making exercises that rapidly become outdated. Indeed, with each new vulnerability attribute added to the normative list of recognisable vulnerabilities, policies and practices become increasingly maladapted to the task of remedying those vulnerabilities. New research in psychology and bioethics, amongst other disciplines, has unveiled a more natural and intuitive way to assess vulnerability.[1] Stemming from an understanding of harm as a universal human characteristic, these new understandings anchor the concept of vulnerability in lived experiences of all criminal justice actors (victims, offenders, witnesses and practitioners alike). Ironically, in addressing the universal human experience of vulnerability, policing approaches can be more cognisant of, and better able to address, individual factors. This shift upstream to universal approaches escapes the traps of social determinism, and service provision based on pre-existing clusters of recognisable vulnerable people.

  • [1] See for example Annaromao (1996); Butler (2004, 2010); Cadwallader (2012); Gilson (2014);Guidry-Grimes and Victor (2012); Kottow (2003); Luna (2009); Misztal (2011); Turner (2006);Walklate (2011).
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