Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Learning from victims of crime

I went to a panel discussion today which was looking at how victims of crime can be better served in the Canadian justice system. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been looking a lot at how offenders are treated – and mistreated – in the system. It was very interesting and informative to look at the other side of the story.

Although I actually don’t think it is the other side of the story. How offenders and victims are treated is so intertwined – they both become part of an adversarial process in which their actions and experiences become forced into various legal slots which fail to get to the real heart of what happened – to the human needs, the human suffering, the human relationships which were affected.

It was so clear today, in listening to this panel and the people in the audience, that victims of crime feel neglected, unheard and dismissed. The focus of our system is on placing blame and assigning punishment. It is not on actually addressing the needs of the people who have been damaged.

One panellist was pointing out that if the only way that victims feel heard, feel their pain has been acknowledged, is in what sentence is handed down – then that sentence can never be enough. He said if the sentence is manslaughter, the victims will feel it should have been 2nd degree murder; if the sentence is 2nd degree, the victim will want 1st. He said that in conversations with people working with victims in Texas, their satisfaction after a sentence of capital punishment was no greater.

Alternatively, research and stories have shown that when victims are involved in the process, feel empowered to make decisions and to be heart, the importance they place on the sentence is diminished.

As I keep seeing, as I keep learning, the answer to improving our justice system is not in longer sentences or more jails – this works for neither the offender nor the victim. It was stated repeatedly, in many different way, that victims need to be included in justice process, they need to be informed about what is happening and what services are available – essentially, they need to be respected.

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