Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Theatre of Cruelty

If you were a victim of a very serious violent or sexual assault,or were the sibling or parent of such a victim, would you want to attend the parole hearing of the Lifer who caused you such suffering?

It is now an option for victims to do so. Some just send a letter explaining their anger and distress. A few actually attend. I'm told that such occasions are highly charged with emotion, a cauldron of despair and frustration.

And I have to ask, to what end? The legal test that a parole board is considering is whether the prisoner poses a "more than minimal risk to life and limb" in the future. It is not tasked with judging the merits of the sentence tariff, or to re-condemn the past. Its sole concern is future chances of reoffending.

Given this, what is it that victims can contribute? They know nothing of the prisoner’s current development, his risk, his treatment, his attitudes. All they can speak of is the suffering his actions of decades earlier caused them. This can speak volumes, but it cannot say anything relating to the task of assessing the prisoner’s future risk.

And so victims are invited to scrape away the patina of normal life that has slowly grown over their wounds and expose their raw pain yet again. They can, and do, weep and rage, waving large pictures of their dead relative before the eyes of the Board.
And the Board must sit, mute, and dismiss all this savage emotion. It is irrelevant to the question of future risk.

What, then, is the point? Who benefits from this theatre of cruelty? For victims must leave these hearings raw and frustrated, having bared their souls and raged against the Lifer, intensely frustrated and disappointed that their feelings and efforts are irrelevant.

This was a Labour idea, intended to 'rebalance' the criminal justice system in favour of victims. It does no such thing. It is an emotional cesspool that was created as a political sop and if I were the victims I'd be far from content at this meaningless effort.

Of course, it could be argued that the way to make this a meaningful process would be to give legal weight to the voices of victims at parole hearings. And, of course, I would profoundly disagree.

To do so would be to make the justice process arbitrary. Not all victims are the same. There are those who argue Life should literally mean Life. There are those for whom their healing rests in forgiveness. And let’s not forget the hierarchy of victims. If you are killed, who in your family gets priority in expressing their views? Your parents? Children? Cousins? The person who feels your loss keenest? A vote amongst the family?

The release of a prisoner cannot - in justice - rest on such vagaries and arbitrary views and feelings. Which raises the question - should victims have any place at the parole table at all? Is this only a political sop that does no one involved any good, least of all victims?


  1. I agree with you Ben; 'A theatre of cruelty' is the right way to describe it too. It sucks. It's like the system in the US, where they have the death sentence and relatives of the victims are invited to attend. It is just so sick. Blair always was Bush's poodle, what a load of utter rubbish, a deplorable way to treat victims and convicted.

  2. I recall seeing my victim's daughter in court and if looks could kill I would be dead now. It brought home to me that there was another victim. I could understand her being angry, bitter and twisted. After 25 years, I moved on and she was still angry, bitter and twisted. If I had kept the same mind set I would neither have reformed, got rehabilitated nor released back into the wider community. When Channel 4 News interviewed her she said, in her view, I had not changed.

    Victims get their just desserts when an offender is sentenced in open court. In my view, that's where it should end. Pandering to the hang em and flog em brigade does not provide better justice. Although I can see some benefit in restorative justice if it is done properly. Neither the CJS nor HRA is about balancing the rights of offenders against victims of crime. In the Prisoners Votes Case the prisoners are the victims of state abuse, and yet some of these so-called victim groups are claiming that prisoners should not have any human rights.

    The Parole Board employs Incapacitation theory, that is, punish you now for what thought crimes are in their heads and they think you might commit in the future. The taxpayers could save millons if Gipsy Rose Lee was instead to gaze into her crystal ball, or read the tealeaves in her cup.

  3. What an insightful description of this particular issue. I have sat through a parole hearing, for a close relative, and it is a horrowing and difficult experiencea for anyone to bear. Ben is right, the victims in a crime know nothing about how a prisoner has dealt with the risks involved or how he/she feels about their crime and how they intend to live their life in the future. If a prisoner feels real remorse this could be conveyed to victims if they express a wish to know - but victims attending parole hearings seems to have no bearing on what a parole hearing is supposed to assess. Perhaps more time and effort could be spent helping victims understand and come to terms with their dreadful experiences rather than dragging them to prisons for parole hearings. Even entering a prison for such a hearing is a traumatic experience and should not be had by anyone unless it is unavoidable.

  4. I agree, it is a barbaric way of dealing with both victim and offenders lives. The need for revenge should be left with the sentencing decision. To go before a parole board means you are supposed to get a "fair hearing", how can that be possible with the family of the victim attending!! Seems to me to be another trial date.

  5. I see your point - but this is parole, right? Not extending the sentence or re-sentencing, just whether to shorten the original sentence.

    Clearly, if the outcome could be to extend the original sentence, then I would agree - this would be a kangaroo court - but as regards shortening a sentence, I think it's not unreasonable to consider the views of the victim - whose healing (or otherwise) might well have been based on the safe knowledge that the individual who caused the pain was off the streets for considerably longer.

  6. Paul, For clarification: Parole can only shorten a sentence when it is a fixed sentence. Murder for example carries a minimum sentence or tariff and then after this a prisoner has to go in front of the parole board to progress through the system to eventual release - so in this instance parole does not shorten the sentence.

  7. @paul, so you think that the length of time a person should serve should reside on the view of the victim? Doesnt that make justice arbitrary?

  8. I agree Ben, and I would go further. Having victim's statements in court (they do in the US - has this happened in the UK yet) to describe the impact that this has had on their lives at the time of sentencing is equally wrong.

    Sentencing should of course consider the impact of the crime, but should not be influenced by a requirement for justice, not raw emotion. Should one person be sentenced more heavily because the victim looks so thoroughly decent and speaks so articulately, and another receive a lesser sentence because the victim did not appear, or did appear and appeared drunk...

    Note to Editor: have you looked at Disqus as a commenting system? Threaded replies are one bonus feature, and it is in general a better system.

  9. Perhaps the issue then is that of looking at what a parole service should do because yes, on the one hand it's about looking to the future but on the other hand, if the victim is still haunted by what happened to them, why should they be the only one still affected by it while their attacker/offender is able to move on with life? Is that fair, no, but let's recall that the person in prison is (normally) the cause of the life-changing event.

    Yes, measurement of reoffending should be part of a parole hearing but perhaps it should only be part and not the main consideration.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.