Jill Schellenberg, Fresno Bee op-ed

Fresno Bee, April 23, 2014

Justice Must Serve Victims

Author: Jill Schellenberg is a professor at Fresno Pacific University.

When a crime is committed, who is the victim? The answer seems obvious: The person harmed by the criminal act.

But our current system of justice treats crime primarily as an offense against the state. If those who break the law are even caught (most are not), they are tried, sentenced and pay society back via fines, probation or incarceration.

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 a secondary concern.

As a professor specializing in victimology, I'm familiar with the studies examining how our current system sometimes treats victims poorly and supporting 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 percent 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 own 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 we should not press charges. When we insisted on going forward, his 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.

These findings and victims’ needs will be the center of attention at a Fresno event Thursday, hosted by Fresno State, Californians for Safety and Justice and the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program of the Central Valley, which mediates meetings between victims and offenders. The event is in line with Fresno 's pioneering place in the restorative justice movement. In 1975, the county’s chief probation officer established the Crime Victims Assistance Center and the first victim impact statement, an account of the victim's injury and loss to be read at sentencing.

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 that must drive the response to crime and how to prevent it.

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