She stepped up to me in the courthouse hallway and stomped her foot in complete frustration.
“I’m the victim! Why don’t I get a chance to say anything? Why is it that the defendant has all the rights?”
Her sentiments reflected a problem that’s resounded year after year during my past 25 years of law enforcement. There must be something I can do, I thought as I quickly weighed the options.
Then it clicked. “Oh yes you do get your say,” I professed in complete confidence. “When the defendant is found guilty the States Attorney will direct you in your preparation of a victim impact statement. Do you know what that is?”
She looked back at me with a bit of a puzzled look and answered my question with another question. “Isn’t that when I read to the court how this crime impacted me and my family?”
“Yes, that’s precisely what it is,” I answered, assured that she would be content with the option.
“Yeah, but what happens if he’s found ‘not guilty?’ Do I still get to tell the court about how this crime impacted me and my family? How we’re terrified that someone is going to break into our house again, this time while we’re all asleep?”
It was like I had been sucker punched and lost my breath.
Why didn’t the victim have more say in this whole arduous criminal process? I thought to myself before dismissing her and her question.
It’s been some weeks since that victim approached me in the courthouse hallway. The trial had went smoothly and the suspect was convicted of the crimes in which he was charged. During the litigation, the victim was finally able to tell the court, more specifically the judge, about how this crime had adversely affected her and her family. About how her husband had bought a gun to protect them and their property; about how her young children would ask if ‘bad men’ were going to break into their house and steal them.
The judge heard her concerns, but the presentence investigation (PSI) had already been completed and the recommendations forwarded to the judge. No doubt in preparation for the sentencing hearing the judge had already read the recommendations in her chambers and most likely had come to a predetermined conclusion.
I thought about the logic in the manner in which this course of action unfolded; how much was already decided as to the defendant’s sentence before the victim was even heard.
No, it didn’t make sense to me.
As you can imagine, I was elated by feelings of optimism when I discovered a new concept within the criminal justice system that seems to be sprouting up in very small ways. It’s not a program, or a system, as opponents would anticipate. Nor is it a ‘feel good’ agenda designed to make everything and everyone whole again. What it is, according to Dr. Howard Zehr, who has been named its grandfather, “is a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.”
This process is called Restorative Justice, and it’s something that victims, and offenders, have been unknowingly asking for, for years.
Now I know what you’re thinking—“this is one of those ‘let’s hold hands and make everything right moments.’”
No, not at all!
Restorative justice is not about forgiveness or reconciliation. Nor is it mediation. It’s not designed to reduce recidivism. It’s not a program or a one-size fits all blueprint. It’s not just for minor criminal offenses, and it’s not just a new North American concept. Above all, it most certainly isn’t a replacement for the legal system, an alternative to prison, or opposition to retribution.
Already in New Zealand and Australia, restorative justice have made significant impacts in both criminal and non-criminal situations, bringing about full closure of unexpected circumstance and events. It has also brought about forgiveness, restoration, and reflected a decline of recidivism in certain areas.
With such successes, restorative justice is something that has captured my attention. Hopefully, as criminal justice professionals delve deeper into these concepts we’ll learn more about interacting with one another and facing these difficult situations that so adversely change so many lives.
Yes, I do believe that with this new concept of restorative justice crime victims can speak out with a louder voice and finally be heard.
Ken Lang is a former Baltimore area homicide detective and an award-winning author of several true crime books, including Walking Among the Dead, Standing In Death’s Shadow, and Death Comes Uninvited. In 2011, he was named one of 50 Great Writers You Should Be Reading by The Author’s Show. He was recently awarded the 2013 DETC Famous Alumni of the Year. 2013 New York Times bestselling author Julia Spencer Fleming says, “Ken Lang is the real deal—a cop with chops!” Ken resides in North East, Maryland with his wife and three children. To learn more about his true crime books and upcoming crime novels please visit his website at www.kenlangstudios.com