After the crime: the power of restorative justice. Dialogues between victims and violent offenders
Jul 29, 2011
Violence, rape, murder and other abusive crimes: not usually pleasant subjects to read about, yet Susan Miller's book left this reader with a positive feeling. This is largely due to Miller herself, who presents the information in a straightforward, sympathetic but non-judgemental way; to Kim Book, who started the organization Victims' Voices Heard after her daughter was murdered; and to the participants themselves. Not all victims felt able to forgive, and this should not be a criterion for 'success'; but they followed the Amish precept: don't balance hurt with hate. Not all offenders accepted full responsibility. Miller divides restorative justice into diversion, taking the place of the criminal justice process for relatively minor cases, and 'therapeutic' RJ, where the offender is already in custody or has served a prison term. These cases are all in the latter category.
One chapter is headed 'the importance of storytelling for restorative justice', and after describing the origin and principles of the VVH programme Miller presents nine case histories where victims (or their relatives) have met the person responsible for their hurt or bereavement. After the basic facts of the case, each chapter gives the victim's story and then the offender's, showing the effects of the restorative process on them both, and referring to studies relating to the same issue. The stories, though each is unique, bring the academic research to life. Sometimes there is a written agreement: 'James', who had committed burglary and rape, promised to write a letter of apology, to do well and continue his education, to write letters reporting progress which would be forwarded by VVH, to do voluntary work after release from prison, to follow his treatment programme, and never intentionally to harm another person. He had served 25 years, and when released, his sole support system was his victim and her husband. There are all-too familiar stories of offenders from dysfunctional childhoods, such as being raised by a grandmother and beaten, or experiencing 22 foster homes, but these are presented as background, not as excuses. Victims tell how they refuse to carry shame about being raped, or were 'no longer ripping myself apart that I let this happen'. Striking is the number of visits to each party undertaken by Kim Book or other VVH volunteers (in one case 36 visits to the victim, 52 to the offender, totalling 131 hours), an emotionally arduous preparation.
These victims are not vindictive, and often want the offenders to make something of their lives as a form of reparation; the sister of one victim of drunken driving summarized what is surely more positive than punishment for its own sake: 'I do believe that 'Jenny' should be given ample time to suffer her consequences, to reflect about the effects of her choices, and to make an example to others of the repercussions of drinking and driving. She took [his] future away from him' (p. 112). Victims desired the offenders to receive punishment, but it did not meet their needs: 'many felt hollow' (p. 160). The sentence can be a cooling-off period; empathy for victims takes time to develop, and meanwhile victims can move beyond anger. A British reader is stunned by the astronomical lengths of American sentences, which seem far in excess of what is needed to achieve such aims, but the author does not get drawn into that separate discussion.
Appendices list theoretical and empirical studies on restorative justice; describe the methodology; and outline the VVH programme structure. There is an index; one minor niggle is that it is a nuisance to be referred to 'Smith (2002)' without being told how far back through the notes one has to look to find the full reference. All in all this is a heartening book, despite the grim events which gave rise to it. It explains in a readable way what restorative justice can do, and its limitations, in the context of scrupulous research on very sensitive experiences.