Our criminal justice system is a quirky set up. It dates back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in England when the king assumed centralized control by issuing authorizations or writs to restrict the jurisdiction of the local authorities. The writs eventually led to the establishment of the Common Law, the law that was common to all of England, and justice became the domain of the king. As the English settled the American colonies, their system became our system.
This system is built on the fiction that the state is the victim because the crime is defined as breaking the state's law, not harming a person. Technically, for example, burglary is the crime of breaking the state law against burglary, not the stealing of goods that belong to another. This explains why, in our criminal courts even today, cases are styled, "The Commonwealth of Virginia vs. John Doe." Making the state the victim provides the rationale for the state imposing the punishment.
In this punitive model of justice, the actual victim is reduced to a mere witness for the state, needed to prove that the state's law has been broken. If there is a plea bargain and no trial, the actual victim plays no role in the process.
The offender's role is to make the state prove the charge in accordance with a complex set of due process rules designed to level the paying field. This, of course, requires that the accused has (or is provided with) the resources necessary to do so, which is too often not the case.
What is totally missed in this antiquated process is the opportunity for the victim and the offender to serve as valuable resources in establishing and maintaining safe and peaceful communities. How powerful victims and offender can be, when given the opportunity, was made clear by the presentations of Wilma Derksen and Peter Woolf at the 13th World IIRP (International Institute of Restorative Practices) Conference in Hull, U.K. last week.
Wilma is the director of Victims' Voice, a program of the Mennonite Central Committee in Canada, where she works with government victim services on many levels. Her daughter, Candace, was murdered in 1984. Her daughter's death became the impetus for Wilma to become a victim activist, promoting healing and forgiveness.
"Victims are a hidden resource," Wilma declared in her workshop on restorative forgiveness. "They will do justice for us, if we don't do revenge. They know the issue. They can articulate it as no one else can." She warns that, in revenge, we always get it wrong. Her website, www.mylemonade.org is about victim resilience.
Peter described his life growing up in a gangster family, being trained in crime from an early age, becoming addicted to drugs at age ten, and working the system to get his needs met. Despite many appearances in court, none of this changed. Getting locked up was just a "bad day at the office." He spent 18 years in prison and expected to die in a prison cell.
It was Peter's participation in a restorative justice victim-offender conference with two of his victims that changed the course of his life. As one of his victims wept as he described being unable to operate on patients whose medical records were on the computer Peter had stolen, Peter realized for the first time that the harm he had caused was more than just taking an object that this rich doctor could easily replace.
In Peter's workshop about his transformation into a restorative angel, he described how he now works full time reaching out to others who are caught up in crime and accept that as the norm, just as he had done. He has written a book, The Damage Done, and is featured in a video, Peter and Will, that is used as a teaching tool by many RJ practitioners.
What both Wilma and Peter now share in common is their commitment to be resources in the restorative justice system where victims and offenders play a critical role, in hopes that others will be spared their pain. Through their work, and the dedicated work of many other victims and offenders who now serve as valuable resources, we discover that deep within every wrong there is a pearl to be harvested, if we just know where to look. It is victims and offenders who can tell us where the pearls are to be found.
Also posted on GenuineJustice.com.