National Crime Victims’ Rights Week in the US runs from 2-8 April 2017 and has prompted me to reflect on the importance of the victim’s voice in delivering effective criminal justice interventions.
NCVRW is led by the Office for Victims of Crime, part of the US Department of Justice, and has taken place every year since 1981. Victims’ rights bodies and law enforcement agencies across America take part. GtD congratulates all the individuals who work with victims of crime, particularly those who will be honored at this week’s NCVRW award ceremony.
Its continued existence, and the coverage it generates, echoes the ongoing importance of victims of crime in the UK system. Here, victims’ rights have long been a policy priority for central government and a focus for the delivery of services among Police and Crime Commissioners.
Victims are important not least because their very existence indicates that the social contract has broken down. When government takes on responsibility for operating the crime and justice system using taxpayers’ money it does so with an implicit promise to keep citizens safe. Each victim – each shattering experience of crime and the pain felt in its aftermath – represents an individual point of failure, and together they gain a grim weight.
Accordingly, the victims’ lobby can be powerful. Quite rightly, victims’ stories elicit public sympathy and make real the cost of crime, reminding all of us that the damage done is not abstract but measured out in sleepless nights, lasting trauma, and grief. Victims’ satisfaction is therefore central to assessing public confidence in the criminal justice system.
In 2014 Get the Data undertook an evaluation of the Surrey Youth Restorative Intervention (YRI) on behalf of Surrey County Council and Surrey Police. Taking a restorative approach, the Surrey YRI works with both the victim and the offender to address the harm caused and hear how the victim was affected. Often this concludes with an apology and some form of reparation to the victim. The idea is that this not only helps victims but also young offenders, making them less likely to reoffend and allowing them to recognise the human cost of their actions. It also avoids criminalising them at a point in their lives when it is not too late to change track.
We found that the Surrey YRI satisfied the victims of crime that were surveyed. On the whole they felt that justice had been done and offenders were held to account. Some individuals also came out of the process expressing greater understanding of the offender and of the lives of young people in their communities. More than one respondent stated that the process made them realise that those who had victimised them were not ‘monsters’.
There’s little to argue with there, then, but such programmes would be hard to justify in today’s economic climate if they also cost a lot more. But, in fact, we found that the YRI cost less to administer per case then a youth caution, and so represented a value-for-money approach to reducing reoffending and satisfying the victim. Putting the needs of victims first, in this case, worked in every sense.