Friday, December 17, 2010

"Whither Victims?"

Here is the problem. The criminal justice system is designed to be largely impersonal, magisterial and impartial. Crimes are prosecuted as being against the Crown, the State, and never an individual.

Conversely, the effects of crime are often profoundly personal. The suffering and pain carried by victims of violent and sexual crimes, in particular, are unique and theirs alone.

It is in the gap between these two domains that disputes, anger, despair and frustration fester. And bridging this gap, attempting to use an impersonal process to address individual suffering, highlights the flaw in very concept of 'criminal justice'. It just isn't designed to heal, to address suffering. The focus upon judgement and punishment has, for a thousand years, overshadowed any attempt to reform the personal bonds that crime severs.

It is no surprise that that are vociferous victims, both individuals and groups, who rail against the current system and their status within it. There is a perpetual cry that 'victims are ignored' and that 'the system protects the criminal but not the victim'. There is some truth in this. Not from malice, not from political disdain, but as a natural consequence of criminal justice as it is conceived.

Nevertheless, recent years have seen governments attempting to lever the concerns of individual victims into the framework of an impersonal justice system. A Victims Service was created, intended to guide and support victims through the trial process. Some categories of alleged victims are absolved from having to face the people they are accusing. Victims can make a statement before sentencing which expresses the effect the crime has had on their lives. Victims can choose to keep in touch with the Prison and Probation services and be consulted and informed when a prisoner is being considered for various activities. Victims can attend parole hearings and lobby the parole board. And victims can ask the parole board to include certain conditions to be included in release licences, such as the prisoner being barred from wide geographical areas.

Some of these efforts are laudable. Who ever thought that prosecution and defence witnesses, the alleged criminal and victim, should share the same waiting rooms in courthouses, for instance? Offering support to victims at points in the criminal justice process cannot be objectionable and are long overdue.

Some of these efforts, though, are political sops that risk undermining Justice and rendering it arbitrary. Should a person’s sentence or release rest upon whether the victims arrive at the courthouse or parole hearing? What if the victim was a thoroughly horrible human being and had no supporters? What if one bereaved family wails with a shriller voice than another? These are not factors that should determine the metric of Justice, and to permit this is to abandon criminal justice in favour of personalised revenge - or forgiveness.

To say that the concerns of victims have been ignored is simply not true. That victims have not had their agenda imposed upon the system is, and neither is the system designed to satisfy individual victim's demands. For example, the desire of Frances Lawrence to know the location of her husbands killer in the community was denied. As a matter of policy - and good sense -the sharing of such information with victims increases the chances of a revenge attack. Instead, the license conditions of the released criminal contains conditions that bar them - on pain or recall to prison - from entering areas where their victims may be found. Such are the compromises that must exist when an impersonal system attempts to meet individual needs, and often no one is satisfied.

In many ways there can never be a place in the criminal justice system for victims. By its very definition and design, criminal justice cannot meet the needs of the individuals enmeshed within it. To do so would be to render it arbitrary.

This is a dilemma that all of us - the accused, the offended against and the wider society - can only begin to address when we accept that impersonal justice systems can never address personal suffering. Perhaps only then, maybe, we will consider a system of justice which can solve these problems. Restorative justice, anyone?

Note from Ed: Ben has himself lost a family member to violent crime.


  1. This is a strong and insightful post, gives plenty to think about. Something to read over and again.

    There was a terrible tragedy a few years back when there was a spate of children killing other children ( thank God its calmed down now ), the case of Damilola Taylor ( I think that was the boys name ) who was killed by his school mates, his mother forgave her sons killers and at the time it seemed unusual and many people were very moved by this, ( I remember being reduced to tears) but she was right and brave too.

    It is right to place the inadequacies of how crime, victims and perpetrators are dealt with to this day and also centuries gone by within the whole criminal justice system and its impersonal nature.

    Really good post, its first time I have thought of it in those terms. Thank you Ben.

  2. An excellently written and balanced post. Thank you for your added note Ed. It would seem Ben is in a pretty unique position to help us all have a greater understanding of these profound criminal justice issues.

  3. I agree,and this is one of the very important reasons that this blog must continue....Would just be nice if Ben was able to do so from the comfort of freedom, even with all the trials and tribulations he is bound to face