There has been much public conversation in recent months around the role of the victim in criminal justice proceedings. I have witnessed first-hand how those who advocate an equal, balanced approach – one that respects the rights of both the offender and the victim – can be misconstrued as “anti-victim prejudice”, and wish to go on record by setting out a proactive approach to dealing with offenders effectively whilst still ensuring that victims are managed compassionately and respectfully.
As a starting point, I would like to pose one simply question – what’s point of the criminal justice system?
Depending on your epistemological standpoint, this question can be answered in a number of ways. For the purposes of this article, I propose that, at least within the context of contemporary public discourse on crime and justice, there are two perceived camps – those who seek retribution, and those who seek reformation. I, quite rightly, have been identified as the latter, and can regularly be seen advocating for penal reform in terms of reducing the prison population and improving the quality of life for those incarcerated, along with critiques of whole-life sentences.
This dichotomy of views has permeated into the wider rhetoric on the treatment of victims within the criminal justice arena, with newspapers and populist commentators often referring to the phenomenon of ‘human rights abuse’ and ‘putting the rights of criminals before the rights of victims’. This, to me at least, seems particularly short-sighted, and masks the true purpose of the criminal justice system – to detect, charge, and sentence those who have committed criminal acts in order to reduce the likelihood of repeated offending.
So what exactly is the role of the victim in this process?
At present, and despite what is presented in the mainstream press, victims of crime actually play a pivotal role in criminal proceedings. Of course, the vast majority of crimes are first reported to the police by victims, who help investigators to collect evidence that lead to charges being brought against suspects. They then testify against defendants in court by providing first-hand accounts of alleged offences. These are examples of positive victim involvement in justice – involvement that directly facilitates, as stated earlier, the detection, and conviction of offenders.
However, this is where victim involvement in criminal proceedings should stop.
We have processes whereby ‘victim personal statements’ can be presented prior to sentencing in UK courts. These statements, read by an advocate of the victim, set out the various ways in which the process of victimisation has had wider effects on the victim of crime, and can be taken into account by judges as they consider what sentence to pass. Conceivably, this puts victims with lower writing abilities at a disadvantage compared to those who are better able to express themselves through the written word – possibly giving rise to a trend of harsher sentences being passed on offenders who commit crimes against more intelligent victims. Of course, this is a claim that needs some research, and I offer this as a tentative suggestion at this time.
The current coalition Government, either ideologically or politically, have now taken the decisions to announce plans for a ‘community remedy’ scheme, whereby victims of low-level antisocial behaviour will be able to effectively choose the punishment handed down to the offender who victimises them. For me, this move is absolutely absurd, and plays right into the hands of an increasingly punitive public who seem hell-bent on promoting a retributive criminal justice system over a restorative one. Of course, these types of schemes ignore the finding that the majority of antisocial behaviour can be eliminated after three reprimands – particularly where the offender is a young person. This would suggest that we need to increase police visibility and re-adopt the mantra of classical criminologists like Cesare Beccaria, who stated that it is the certainty of punishment, rather than the severity of it, that will lead to reductions in crime. This idea still lives on today, with the Howard League for Penal Reform recently publishing its Intelligent Justice pamphlet based on precisely this issue. In short, allowing a punitive public to choose punishments from a menu of sentencing options potentially increases the likelihood (statistically speaking) of reoffending, rather than assisting the offender on the Road from Crime.
So how can we involve victims in sentencing whilst still upholding the central tenant of encouraging desistance from crime?
One developing trend is that of restorative justice, whereby offenders and victims come together to have open and frank discussions about the events that have taken place between them – allowing the offender to explain their actions and the victim to let the offender know exactly how their actions have effected both the victim and wider community. This type of approach works particularly well in cases of low-level crime (such as acquisitive offences and antisocial behaviour), with the restorative justice approach leading to higher rates of victim satisfaction and offender accountability than any other sentencing type.
One question often posed to me in relation to victim management is mental health, and how we might seek to balance these needs in victims whilst treating offenders positively and effectively. For me, this is straightforward. The criminal justice system is not responsible for the mental health of victims – this is the responsibility of NHS mental health service providers. Of course, police liaison officers help so far, and special measures are available to victims and witnesses during the investigation and trial stages of criminal proceedings, and these should, of course, remain central to victim management. However, the idea that punitive sentencing should be promoted in order to appease victims and improve their mental wellbeing is ridiculous, and again goes against the aims of the criminal justice system
I am frequently challenged by people in the issue of anti-victim prejudice in relation to sexual offences – particularly alleged rape offences – due to the particularly low conviction rate compared to reported crimes. Again, I simply do not accept that this low rate is due to any form of prejudice against alleged rape victims per se. Obviously, we need to address rape myths that permeate into mainstream thinking (only today was it reported that one in twelve people believe that rape victims are to blame if they are drunk), as these discourage victims from coming forward. Rather, I have written previously on how rape cases are incredibly difficult to investigate, and cite sexual script theory as one way to conceptualise exactly how hard it must be to put together an effective prosecution case for these crimes.
My conclusion is this – instead of assigning people to either pro- or anti-victim camps, we should begin to look at how we can best manage the needs of the victim (through special measures, effective policing, and quality mental health care) with the needs of offenders (through the respecting of human rights, effective sentencing, and the promotion of community reintegration upon completion of a criminal sentence).
I would argue that the emotionality of victimisation clouds objectivity, and reduces the likelihood of fair and efficient sentences being passed. For these reasons, I believe that there should be a clear delineation of where criminal justice stops and other services take over in terms of victim management, and for me this is at the sentencing stage. This would mean that victims are still able to put their views across in the courtroom (assisted by special measures if required) and offenders are sentenced fairly. Only then can we begin to move forward with the next stage of justice – reducing reoffending.
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