The focus is on punishment and retribution, assuming this deters future crimes. The needs of victims and their families — physical recovery, emotional healing, material restitution, rebuilding their lives and moving on — can come across as secondary concerns.
As a professor specializing in victimology, I'm familiar with the studies examining how our system sometimes treats victims poorly. These studies support a shift toward a greater focus on restorative justice, which works to repair the harm that crime inflicts on victims and the community. I have published research showing that more than 82% of people in Fresno County think victims and their needs should be central to criminal proceedings.
But I learned about the problem firsthand when a member of my family was the victim of a brutal violent crime.
The attacker pled not guilty; it would be his word against the victim's. The prosecutor assigned to our case believed the victim's testimony would not be credible and said we should not press charges. When we insisted on going forward, the prosecutor's response made me realize he was not our advocate. His job was to further the interests of the state, and when our interests ran counter, he became more like our adversary.
Because we had been subpoenaed by the defense, we were barred from attending many of the pre-trial hearings and were rarely informed about what happened in them. Finally a jury was selected, but just before trial a plea bargain was struck. (The offender was sent to prison, served his time and has been released.)
That was more than 10 years ago, but I was reminded of this experience – and the need for change — after attending a conference in Sacramento about putting victims' needs at the center of criminal justice policies.
This was echoed in a new report by the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley about repeat crime victims in California. Its most important finding: Focusing on victims' needs will not detract from the goal of making communities safer — in fact, it will reduce crime.
Researchers found the best predictor of who will become a victim is whether someone has been a victim. Making sure victims have access to medical care, counseling and other assistance can help them avoid the circumstances that put them at risk of repeat victimization.
...Restorative justice helped our family heal. It helps offenders take responsibility for their crimes and makes our communities safer.
It's time to remember that people, not the state, are the true victims of crime. Their needs for healing must drive the response to crime and how to prevent it.
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