Crime, Punishment and Victims

Victims of crime need a great deal more support from society than they currently get. They need emotional support to recover from the effects upon them, personally, of whatever the crime has been. Often they may need financial support and they certainly need a great deal of legal and emotional support  in the event that they need to give evidence in court about the offence, particularly if the perpetrator does not plead guilty.

However the recent and increasing view that a victim’s state of mind and ability to heal should be a part of what is reflected in the court processes and ultimate sentence, is a move which has the capacity to change and perhaps distort the legal processes and, in my view, will not ultimately help the victim.

The rationale in most systems of justice from the very primative to what we consider to be the more sophisticated has always been a  balance between punishment and deterrence. In our society, in separating the role of punishment for crimes from the victims and placing it in the hands of the legal system we have, I think rightly, removed the notion of vengeance. And anyway, vengeance cannot really be outsourced.

Many victims and relatives of victims feel that vengeance would heal their pain but it rarely does. Here I refer to the wisdom of Mr Brian Deegan, the father of one of the victims of the Bali bombing.

The notion of victim impact statements certainly has a benefit on  offenders’ understanding and appreciation of the damage they have done but, long term, perhaps has less benefit for the victims than they expect. Rehabilitation arguably should be part of our system. For the future of society I think it should be (but not as a right that prisoners themselves have). But contributing to the rehabilitation of the perpetrator is certainly not the responsibility of the victim.

There has been a lot of law on the effects of particular vulnerabilities of the victim on the actual crime (such as the law on”eggshell” skulls) and essentially, under the law, it is considered the crime should usually stand alone. In the area of sexual assault, which is particularly difficult for victims, the fact that, for example, a raped person is quite resilient and manages to go through the ordeal and subsequent processes with less damage than some other victims, does not make the initial crime any the less.

I think that we have a long way to go in the area of punishment for crime. We have inherited a mishmash of historical anomalies altered, not always for the good, by what have been the political pressures of the time. We need to reconsider from scratch our penal system and also what we, as a society, can do for victims of crime.

But I feel strongly that the legal trial system (which is not itself ever immune from the need for overhaul) should remain a little separate from all this. “Far better that (?insert your own historical number) go free than one innocent man is condemned.”


About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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