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Remembering Victims of Crime This Week
At the core of the vast majority criminal cases, there is a victim--sometimes more than one. Sometimes the victim is society as a whole. But every criminal act, large or small, leaves a victim in its wake.
Our criminal justice system works to protect society, hold offenders accountable, and seek justice. But it must also work to make victims as whole as possible following a criminal act. Victims must always have a place at the table and be central to the administration of fair and equitable justice.
As we enter Crime Victims' Rights Week (April 21-27th), we should remember that primary among those rights is the right to a criminal justice process that fully includes the victim and gives full weight to victim concerns.
There are very good reasons that the state, not the victim personally, is responsible for prosecuting crimes. Our system is intended to put the full weight of the state on the side of seeing that justice is done, and to avoid a revenge-based system that could lead to unfair results. But it is easy, in a system focused on respecting the rights of both victims and defendants, when penalties are imposed only for failing to ensure the rights of the latter, to give short shrift to the priorities of victims.
As a signatory to Right on Crime, a national campaign to reform criminal justice systems, I believe that an efficient and cost-effective criminal justice system must include restoration of victims as one of its central principles. The government is not the primary aggrieved party -- the crime victim is. The Right on Crime Statement of Principles includes recognition of the role of victims as a key aspect of the criminal justice process.
States have been increasingly embracing this concept. In Texas, legislators are currently considering a bill that would allow a victim, if he or she chooses and the prosecutor agrees, to resolve the case through a conference with the offender that results in an apology and a binding agreement for restitution and, in some cases, community service. Many states that have engaged in these types of victim-centered approaches refer to them as "restorative justice."
Arizona provides a statutory right for victims to be present and heard in court at plea agreement hearings - not just at sentencing hearings. This helps to ensure that any agreements reached between prosecutors and defendants include victim input and properly account for their concerns.
This type of legislation ensures that victims are being heard by the criminal justice system and by the offender. But in addition to ensuring that their needs are prioritized, victim-driven reforms have corollary and systematic benefits.
Including the victim in the process has been shown to reduce recidivism, increase restitution payments, and enhance victim satisfaction with the resolution of the criminal case. For example, victim-offender conferencing being considered by Texas has been found to result in an average of 7 percent reduced recidivism, 89 percent of victim-offender agreements successfully completed, and 79 percent of victims satisfied with the outcome. These rates far exceed traditional measures.
Direct conferencing between victims and offenders can have a perhaps surprising impact. Used in appropriate cases, it can lead to a stark realization by the offender of the effect of his or her actions, hold offenders more accountable than the traditional criminal justice process and help change future behavior.
Furthermore, giving victims the ability to directly request specific restitution or other acts from offenders, such as an apology or community service, ensures that their needs are central and prioritized.
This week, we should all focus on how to improve the lives of victims of crime - and the Texas and Arizona initiatives provide ways to do just that.
Deborah J. Daniels
Daniels is a former local prosecutor, United States Attorney, and U.S. Assistant Attorney General.
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