Crime harms people, and it should be our goal to repair that damage. The needs of victims of crime are often ignored in our justice system. Most offenders are not held accountable to repay their victims. That's because our criminal justice system defines crime as an offense against the state, not against the victim. You can see this in the way criminal cases are titled: The State v. Defendant. Crime is defined as "law breaking" rather than "victim harming," and the purpose of the criminal justice system is to maintain order by punishing the offenders for breaking the law and trying to ensure that they do not break the law again. Victims' desires and needs are usually not considered. Unfortunately, this leaves the victim out in the cold.
This week (April 10-16) is National Crime Victims' Rights Week -- a time set aside to call attention to the needs of victims and promote their inclusion in the criminal justice process. I hope you will use this week to focus on the needs of the true consumers of the corrections system -- those who have been personally harmed by an offender.
In today's corrections system there is no incentive for the prosecutor to seek reparation for the victims. Traditional district attorney performance measures count the number of cases processed, the number of convictions, and the overall conviction rate. However, these volume measurements only reflect an increase in crime, not service to those wronged by crime. To truly measure the accomplishments of a district attorney's office or probation department, victim satisfaction and restitution must be used as performance measures as well.
In addition, many victims often want to meet with their offenders, and are sometimes even moved to forgive them. There are several excellent programs that prepare victims and offenders for such a meeting. These Victim-Offender programs are called by various names: reconciliation, mediation, or dialogue. Victims who choose to participate are given the opportunity to express their true feelings about what occurred, ask questions of the offender, and suggest ways that the offender can begin to make things right. According to assessments of several programs in the Midwest, victims' goals were to recover some losses, help the offenders stay out of trouble, and have a real part in the criminal justice process.
A nationwide survey found 95 percent of cases resolved through victim-offender mediation result in a written agreement -- 90 percent of which are completed within one year, far exceeding the average restitution collection rate of just 20 to 30 percent. This is largely due to the fact that during mediation, the offender typically does not receive a conviction on their record, and are able to maintain employment, with some of their wages going to their victim.
Nearly four in five victims who went through a mediation process said they were satisfied with the results, which far exceeds the satisfaction of just 57 percent for victims who went through the traditional court system.
Mediation allows the victim to give the cry of their heart at the damage they have endured as a result of the crime. This gives them their own voice in the process -- without being filtered through the voice of a government official. Moreover, most offenders when hearing how they have harmed the victims are moved to apologize and for the first time understand the impact of their transgression, which some researchers say lowers the number of individuals who re-offend. For example, the 1,298 juveniles who participated in mediation during the aforementioned survey were 32 percent less likely to re-offend than if they had gone through the traditional process. Alternative solutions, like mediation, give a voice to victims and work towards breaking the cycle of crime.
Victims may sustain physical injury, monetary loss, and emotional suffering. The crime may disrupt their lives temporarily -- or for as long as they live. To be victimized is to feel powerless, and victims often need help regaining an appropriate sense of control over their lives. Victims also need to be vindicated -- declared "not guilty" of being victimized.
However, victims not only need systemic change, they also need practical help that we individually can provide. Some of the ways you can help victims are:
• Provide immediate relief, such as food, lodging, house cleaning, medical care, and crime-scene cleanup.
• Accompany them to court; let them know you are there to support them.
• Keep them informed of the status of their case.
• Drive them to doctors' appointments.
• Help them complete applications for reimbursement for losses from victim restitution funds.
• Make their home more secure.
• Spend time with them. Companionship is important.
• Listen to them and make sure they realize that they are not at fault and did not deserve what happened to them.
• Pray with them.
• Find out how they can be informed of any parole hearing on their case. It is important that you do not tell them that they must forgive the offender. At the appropriate time, the Holy Spirit will work in their hearts. It is not up to us to push them toward forgiveness.
In December 2010, I helped launch Right on Crime -- a nationwide conservative criminal justice reform initiative. This project has made a high priority for victims' rights. We work with policymakers to ensure victims are treated with dignity and respect and given the choice to participate, receive restitution, and even reconcile, when appropriate, with suitable and truly repentant offenders. Right on Crime believes the amount and share of restitution should be recorded and used as a performance measure for probation and parole systems.
We need to refocus the criminal justice system on victims as the primary consumers of justice and ensure restitution is collected first, followed by any fines and fees owed to the government. During National Crime Victims' Rights Week, let us remember those who have been wronged by offenders and make certain they are given a greater role in the process of achieving justice.
Pat Nolan is Vice President of Prison Fellowship, a Right on Crime signatory, and a recipient of the "Victims' Advocate Award" from Parents of Murdered Children. For more information, visit Justice Fellowship and Right on Crime