Tuesday, February 2, 2010

If ...

Susan Herman, whose concept of parallel justice we explored in our fall-winter newsletter, followed Howard Zehr on the "Innovative and Effective Responses to Crime and Violence" panel at the NCADP conference last month. Susan's talk included this powerful statement:

If we acknowledge victims’ experiences, make victim safety a high priority, address victims’ needs as much as possible, and enforce their rights to participate meaningfully in the criminal justice process, I believe millions of people who have been victims of crime will be much more open to criminal justice reform—including considering the abolition of the death penalty.

This is one of the most concise summaries I've seen of the interconnectedness of victim work and abolition work.

Here is another excerpt from Susan's remarks:

While much of the criminal justice reform agenda, in my view, clearly overlaps with victims’ needs and concerns, alliances between criminal justice reformers and victims and victim advocates, are few and far between. The common ground between these “camps” is rarely explored. And this is true in both directions.

My hope today is to shed some light on why this may be so, and why it is critical that anyone interested in abolishing the death penalty, or anyone interested in achieving a more just response to crime, try to overcome the barriers between these camps, and understand the relevance of victims’ needs and concerns.

Let’s begin by dealing with some of the elephants in the room. First elephant: Many proposals calling for stiffer sentences, or even supporting the death penalty, have been spearheaded by victims. Furthermore, politicians and prosecutors often align themselves with victims-- sometimes outspoken victims, sometimes victims of particularly horrific crimes-- saying they are pushing for harsher penalties on behalf of these victims.

So, let’s unpack this one. Over the years, research has consistently shown that victims of crime hold views about sentencing that are as diverse as the general population. I am not saying that some victims don’t have extremely retributive leanings. Many do. But as you well know, given your membership, many others don’t.

It’s important to remember that we are far less likely to hear from victims with less extreme views. Some do not seek attention, and worse, when they have, they are often ignored by prosecutors and politicians who fear being seen as soft on crime.

Even the press tends to portray the victims who believe in more lenient sentences---especially, the “forgiving victims”-- as oddities-- almost saint like people whose personal journeys make good stories, but whose views about criminal justice policies are not important.

Second elephant: Many people feel it’s just too difficult to talk with victims or victim advocates about crime policy because it gets too personal, too emotional. For this reason, despite the great potential of such alliances, criminal justice reformers often don’t want to include victims or advocates in their discussions. Likewise, many criminal justice practitioners (police, prosecutors, judges, and even parole officials) complain that victims make the whole criminal justice process messier and more complicated. ...

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