Last time, I wrote about how testifying in court can actually be a positive and healing experience for crime victims.
Today, I focus on the vast majority of cases that do not go to trial but end in a guilty plea.
A conviction by itself does not necessarily bring the “closure” that is so often talked about because the criminal-justice system is not well-suited to restoring a victim’s sense of safety, security and control.
There are ways, however, that it can help people move past anger, sorrow and betrayal and move forward, changing from victim to survivor.
When I was district attorney, I talked and listened to a great many victims. Sometimes, it was very clear that what victims wanted most was not jail or a criminal punishment but to tell the defendant how much they had been hurt or betrayed and the impact on them of the crime.
Sometimes I was also aware that the defendant was very remorseful but did not know how to make amends.
VICTIMS MEET DEFENDANTS
In carefully selected cases, when the victim wanted to, I arranged a meeting between the victim and defendant as part of a plea agreement.
The purpose was to give the victim the opportunity to say whatever he or she wanted to the defendant — to vent anger, tell the defendant how the crime made them feel and the like. All the defendant had to do was listen.
These unusual meetings involved serious crimes, such as acquaintance rape, criminally negligent homicide and alcohol-related car crashes where someone was killed or seriously injured.
In the rape cases, each victim very much wanted to tell the defendant what she felt, how devastated she was at being betrayed by a man she trusted and thought was her friend.
The homicides, between strangers, were unintentional but preventable.
A homicide defendant met with the widow of the young man he killed while bear hunting.
A vehicular manslaughter defendant met with the mother of his passenger, who was killed because the defendant crashed while intoxicated.
We arranged for a woman whose brother was killed by a drunk driver 23 years previously to meet with that driver after she read in the paper that he was arrested for another DWI charge.
NO LONGER VICTIMS
The defendants did not receive a better plea offer by agreeing to meet with the victims. The meeting was a separate, independent element of the plea and depended only on whether the victim wanted it.
The sole purpose of the meeting was to fulfill the victim’s need to confront the person who harmed him or her. Even so, in our meetings, no defendant remained silent. Although they only had to listen and were not required to speak, they all did.
They apologized, cried, asked for forgiveness and answered questions.
Many victims who entered the meetings frightened, angry and full of hate left half an hour later without those feelings.
Inside that room, they confronted the person who had taken so much from them, told the defendant what they felt, listened and sometimes saw another suffering human being.
When they left the room, they were no longer victims, but survivors.
Our victim-defendant meetings were impactful but rare. They fit loosely under the concept of “restorative justice,” which is taking hold in communities and courts around the country, and the world.
In the past decade, courts, police and communities have embraced restorative justice and “peacemaking” programs, changing what was an entirely adversary legal process. They recognize that many civil claims and criminal cases in essence are about ongoing relationships, not single offenses, and that often the community is affected.
The Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn started a Peacemaking Program in January 2013, bringing a Native American justice tradition to a non-native community.
Local community members are trained as peacemakers, and many cases, involve family members or neighbors. They see benefits to everyone involved and to the community as a whole.
Victim-offender meetings, Restorative Justice practices and peacemaking are all approaches that encourage accountability and responsibility by offenders and help victims heal.
Recognizing that cases are about people who continue their lives after a criminal act, they give those involved direct input into fashioning a way forward.
Penny Clute has been an attorney since 1973. She was the Clinton County district attorney from 1989 through 2001, then Plattsburgh City Court judge until she retired in January 2012.