Want justice? Listen to the victim Central Valley a leader

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Victims have been in the news lately. Hurricanes and earthquakes have killed thousands and displaced millions. Then there are the victims of wars and insurrections, with the daily toll of those killed by seemingly random bombs. Fears of a worldwide flu pandemic obscure the thousands dying daily of already endemic diseases. Last, but not least, are victims of crime.

Direct victims are just the tip of the iceberg. For every person who dies in one of these many tragedies there is a grieving family and an affected community. These indirect victims swell the ranks of those touched by victimization. For those of us not directly experiencing war, disease, famine or natural disaster, the fear of becoming a crime victim is likely to be more on our minds than all these other things.

Californians spend a lot of money protecting themselves from crime. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation budget is $7.4 billion, 5.4 percent of California’s general fund. Adding all the police, sheriff, prosecutor, public defender and criminal court costs gives us a very large number.

The ironic thing is that very little of this money goes to serve the rights or needs of victims. It goes for catching and punishing the offender. Prevention receives a small percentage. It is also ironic that so much is spent to incarcerate, while a small fraction goes to prepare prisoners for success after release. Recidivism rates approach 75 percent, even though we know that most inmates are released.

California’s Central Valley has played a unique role in victims’ rights. Most people probably associate the Three Strikes law created in Fresno with helping victims, but it is actually about incarcerating offenders. Fresno has offered more.

Crime creates needs and responsibilities. Victims have needs and someone is responsible for them. The criminal justice system identifies the person who is responsible, then punishes them. The offender’s punishment is not designed to meet the victim’s needs.

Two things happened in Fresno in the last 30 years to change this situation. Jim Rowland, then the chief probation officer, invented the victim impact statement to give victims a voice in court. About the same time the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program was founded by Ron Claassen, now director of the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies at Fresno Pacific University. VORP focuses on helping the victim and offender agree on what needs and responsibilities have been created, and then follows through to make sure that offenders did their part to make things right with the victim. By having the victim and offender meet together to agree on what needed to be done, the victim was able to heal much better and faster, and was much more likely to get full restitution for financial losses. Offenders were invited to take responsibility, and when they did the chances of them offending again dropped significantly.

Both of these innovations are now in common use all around the United States and abroad. Significant research by the California Judicial Council and others has shown that victims are better served by restorative processes like VORP uses. Not only are victims more satisfied, but offenders are less likely to re-offend, or re-offend at a lower level. New Zealand began handling all youthful offenders through victim offender dialogue processes, and within a few years closed seven of nine youth detention facilities.

There is a movement supported by most criminal justice system leaders to let Fresno lead the way in victims’ rights again by creating a pilot project allowing Fresno to follow the path pioneered by New Zealand. After 20 years and over 7,000 Fresno cases bringing victims and offenders together, we are poised to have the process be standard for nearly all juvenile cases. Legislation is being drafted to make this change possible.

Victims have a right to be involved in deciding what justice means in their case. They don’t have that right today beyond giving the court their victim impact statement.

When offenders are offered the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions and to make things right with their victim, it changes them. Victims get the answers they need and can begin to heal much more quickly. Restorative processes such as victim-offender dialogue offer by far the best hope for both victims and offenders. Fresno Pacific University’s Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies is at the forefront of the worldwide movement for restorative justice, working with groups at all levels from local schools to the United Nations. We hope Fresno and the Central Valley can continue to show the way.

Duane Ruth-Heffelbower directs the graduate academic programs in leadership and peacemaking at Fresno Pacific University. He leads the Fresno Victim Offender Reconciliation Program and is on the board of the American Society of Victimology.

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