Here’s a news story that sees a real problem in the way that crime victims experience criminal justice. But then it falls into a familiar trap in criminal justice thinking.
Liz Shepard of Gannett’s Times Herald in Port Huron, Michigan, wrote about a horrifying crime in which a teen, just before her 18th birthday, arranged for a violent attack on her adoptive parents. Her father died and mother was wounded. Tia Skinner and the two assailants were sentenced to life without parole in 2011.
Mara McCalmon describes to Shepard the trauma of going through that trial and sentencing, only to endure two resentencings of her daughter. Thanks to changes in the law governing life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, Michigan prosecutors twice put McCalmon back in court to describe her ordeal. At the third sentencing, Skinner’s defense team made the family feel under attack as it pursued claims of a troubled childhood, which might mitigate against the most severe sentence.
Quoting the defense lawyer as saying such experiences for victims are a necessary “reality,” the story barely explains the factors considered in sentencing or the reasons for the constitutional and statutory changes that called a juvenile LWOP sentence into question. The story’s primary message: silly legal technicalities that stood in the way of a speedy resolution only served to harm the victims without changing the outcome. If only we figured out, the story seems to conclude, how to make the system a little more punitive, we’d finally do right by victims.
This is the standard approach by American criminal justice, to assume our only societal obligation to the victims is to punish wrongdoing as severely and efficiently as possible. But what stares us in the face in this story is how inadequately that serves these victims. McCalmon, who graciously concedes that important questions were at stake in the resentencings, practically begs for alternatives that would not stick her and her family in the middle of win-at-all-costs adversarial system. She tells Shepard:
Victims never get over these life changing events, however we strive to carry on. And so while we begin and work through this process, with the help and support of our faith, family and friends, rulings that open wounds really re-victimize victims in so many ways.
The rulings are the central problem only if we see victims as tools to be used in achieving “justice” (defined strictly as punishment) and then left to sort out their problems on their own. All too often, victims like McCalmon never hear of methods proven to ease this sort of pain. In restorative justice programs, dialogue and group conferencing take words like McCalmon’s and then dig deeper, to discover what victims truly need that isn’t satisfied by the ultimate sanctions against an offender. Maybe it’s a bridge between the family and the defense team, so that sentencing can proceed without causing so much damage. Maybe it’s face-to-face meetings, after intensive preparation, between the family and the offenders so that the family can say what it needs to say, ask what it needs to know, outside of the harsh glare of a staged conflict in court. Restorative justice doesn’t preclude punishment, but it doesn’t define justice for victims as beginning and ending there.
The first step, though, is listening — really listening — to what victims tell us.