Restorative justice approaches may have a place in the criminal-justice system, but our concern is that the community narrative has shifted away from victims’ rights and onto offenders.
AS advocates for victims of sexual assault and other serious crimes with more than 100 years of combined experience, we are concerned and frustrated to read about the continued enthusiasm by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for “peacemaking circles” as a restorative-justice approach for juveniles who have committed serious violent crimes.
As a recent Seattle Times news story made clear [“King County sticks with peace circles for juvenile crime, even after a murder charge” Page One, April 11], most victims do not want to participate in peace circles, which are focused on offenders, not victims.
Following the story’s publication, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office stated publicly that the office had no intention of applying these practices to cases involving sexual assault, domestic violence or homicide cases. There have been 12 alternative resolutions focused on youth gun violence and none were related to sexual assault crimes. However, the endorsement of this unproven approach raises the question of whether it could be applied to such serious crimes in the future.
Doing so would be a grave injustice to victims of crime, from whom the criminal-justice system already demands so much.
Victims — even those who are young children — must often endure repeated questioning about every detail of the crime. They must accept the frequent delays in the legal process, participate in an adversarial process where their credibility is aggressively challenged and, in some cases, testify in open court about frightening, intimate and embarrassing details. The more serious the crime, the greater the likelihood a victim will endure the most stressful aspects of involvement.
The harrowing process for victims spurred the victims’ rights movement in the 1970s. These rights have now been enshrined in laws in every state including Washington state’s crime victim and child victim bills of rights. The core principles are the right to be treated with dignity, respect and sensitivity, to be informed about the process and to have their voice heard. This includes the right to have their views about the outcome of the criminal-justice process respected whether it is about punishment, accountability, or rehabilitation.
In our experience, most victims do want offenders to have the opportunity for rehabilitation. We simply do not hear from victims that they favor rehabilitation instead of conviction, punishment or incarceration for the crime.
We agree that mass incarceration and the racial disproportionality that accompanies it are serious social concerns. As a society we need to do much more to prevent children and youth from entering the justice system. We support efforts to prevent entry into the criminal-justice system. In fact, by effectively treating the impact of victimization, the work of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center and Harborview Medical Center is part of an overall crime-prevention approach.
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And we agree that those who commit serious violent crimes, especially juveniles, should receive effective interventions. But the interventions need to be proven, and have, as their primary goal, the reduction of recidivism. Recidivism means that additional victims have been harmed by an offender with a prior history.
Restorative-justice approaches may have a place in the criminal-justice system — as long as victim input is genuinely considered and community safety is not jeopardized. Our concern is that the community narrative has shifted away from victims and onto offenders, even homicide cases. For example, three teenagers, one only 13 years old, were slain in the last month, yet their stories barely made the news. We see statements that temporary detention in a secure environment for juveniles who have committed rape or murder is traumatic, as if it is the equivalent of being a victim of rape or violence. Offenders are being recast as victims, yet most victims do not go on to commit serious violent crimes. We hear that the criminal-justice system is the problem, not crime and victimization.
Reporting crimes and participating in the criminal-justice process can never make up for the harm that has already been done to victims. But it can give victims a sense that they have done their part to help society hold lawbreakers to account and take steps to protect the community from future harm by their offenders. If we want victims to report crimes, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office must show that supporting victims, hearing and respecting their voices and focusing on preventing recidivism is the priority of the criminal-justice system.
The bottom line is that our criminal-justice system works when the prosecutor is focused on the public interests — victim and public safety. If the prosecutor does not represent these interests, there is no one else to do so, and victim rights become meaningless.