This development has been welcome. By highlighting in human terms the human consequences for those affected by crime it invites the court, the perpetrator and the community to recognise its seriousness. It shows that no crime is an event without consequence but brings hurt and loss to individuals and to different groups beyond the immediate victim. The response of the community to crime must take this into account..
The attention to victims has come at a time when political attitudes to crime and sentencing have hardened. Statutory minimum sentences, the reduction of parole and the loss of judicial flexibility embody an emphasis on the retributive aspect of punishment, with corresponding less emphasis on the place of rehabilitation and restoration. Imprisonment is seen as the principal way of safeguarding the community.
As a result jailes are becoming more crowded with less funding and opportunity for rehabilitation.
Although imprisonment is an essential part of any response to crime, this emphasis fails to serve well the needs of victims of crime or of the community. These are inextricably interwoven with the needs of the perpetrators.
The challenge for all affected is to find the inner space to address these needs. Crime restricts space: the inner freedom we need to take responsibility for our lives and the consequences of what we have done, to accept our predicaments, and to recognise that we are vulnerable to events and people over which we have no control.
This space is crowded out by the anger, fear, guilt and horror that we naturally feel when confronted with the crime we have done, suffered or seen enter our world. In addressing crime, we need to restore and amplify that space so that people can find healing, make changes to their lives and make rational decisions.
The prosecution and sentencing of perpetrators help restore space to victims and the community, restoring their faith in an ordered world. The opportunity for victims to describe their hurt and have it taken into account in sentencing also gives space. It affirms the wrongness of the crime and ensures others will be protected.
But many victims discover that no finite punishment can ever satisfy their anger, make up for their loss or guarantee their future security. The hope frequently expressed that the perpetrator will rot in hell reflects their insatiable desire for retribution, but also the hell into which the crime has plunged them.
Anger is a natural response when we are affected by crime. But ultimately we find space only when we let go of our rage. In many cases we can only do this when those who have wronged us feel remorse for what they have done. To that extent the space for freedom of the victim depends on the space found by the perpetrator.
That is true also for the community. The anxiety about crime that afflicts society can be assuaged only by assurance that the community is safe. Such assurance will not be be believed unless people turn from crime to sociable living in the community.
But contrary to popular opinion the imposition of harsher sentences under more rigorous conditions make it more, not less, likely that people will reoffend. More public funds then need to be spent on keeping more people locked up, with the result there is little left to fund counselling and transition back into the community.
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