Headlines often suggest that listening to the voice of victims means becoming punitive and even Draconian. Because the worst offences lead to an understandable scream of pain from the bereaved, there is an impression that the only response of victims is anger and a demand for retribution. In my experience that is far from the truth: victims in general are rational and the demand that “something must be done” is accompanied by a belief that the “something” must be sensible and effective. You only have to think of the parents of Stephen Lawrence or the wife of Phillip Lawrence, and many others who have turned a horrific experience into a lifelong commitment to constructive work on preventing the same thing happening to others.
Of course, there is a need to keep some of the worst offenders locked up for life so that they can’t repeat their actions. But the vast majority of offenders are at a much lower end of the scale and the big question is how to make sure they don’t reoffend. And the even bigger challenge for society is how to “nip things in the bud” much earlier so that a pattern of offending doesn’t even reach that stage.
This week, I attended a roundtable discussion organised by Victim Support and Make Justice Work – two organisations with a massive commitments to pursuing the interests of victims.
Their excellent report, “Out in the Open” (available here), talks about ways of taking victims’ views into account whilst also reforming sentences that have proved ineffective. They want community sentences to work and to be seen to work.
Part of the problem is that victims and witnesses (including victims who have to give evidence), are often treated badly by the court system – kept waiting, given inadequate information about what is going on and off not knowing the outcome of the case. Organisations like Victim Support and the police increasingly put effort into overcoming these problems, but you rarely get the impression that the courts (or the Criminal Justice System as a whole) are organised with the interests of victims in mind.
As Victim Support tells us, what victims want more than anything else – other than not to have become a victim in the first place – is to have confidence that it won’t happen again. And that means putting effectiveness in preventing reoffending at the heart of the whole system.
Restorative justice is an approach to crime that’s based on the assumption that a criminal act is a crime against the community rather than the state. It takes into account the wishes of the victims, the offenders and the general public and encourages offenders to make amends and to stop offending. It often succeeds in making offenders aware of the damage they have done.
This week’s report tells us that victims don’t want more severe sentences, but they do want sentences to be consistent and effective. Victims and the general public both “believe strongly in punishment and public protection, but not to the exclusion of rehabilitation and reform”, says the report. That’s the challenge for everyone involved from Government Ministers to those working locally on preventing and reducing crime.