by Julia Steiny
Sometimes achieving Justice is as simple as listening until the victim feels heard.
Increasingly, the formal legal system has taken responsibility for conflict management out of the hands of ordinary people. The restorative justice movement is particularly critical of how the traditional justice system sidelines crime victims almost entirely. As we all know from TV courtrooms, the crime is expressed as the State versus Julia. But where are the victims? They're the occasion of the crime, to be sure, but at most they might write an impact statement to be read at sentencing or get some sort of Court-determined restitution. Only the police are much interested in what victims have to say, and even their interest does not extend to what victims might want or need. So lawyers and judges are by no means accustomed to asking how on earth such behavior – from obnoxious to heinous – came to pass, never mind how healing from this rift or crime might come about.
A professor of law, a former State's Attorney and now the Governor's liaison to the criminal justice program, Robert Sand has law-and-order cred. Speaking at a recent Restorative Justice conference, he says as communities lose their tightly-knit character, they also lose their ability to handle their own conflicts. So conflicts of all kinds are either ignored, which can lead to festering, or are handed over to the formal justice system, where victims are non-entities. As a result, Sand says, fewer people get what they really want, which is to be heard. Among his other stories, all far more grisly, he tells this trivial one to illustrate the efficiency and satisfaction of meeting a victim's needs.
In one of Vermont's many rural counties, an enterprising woman decided to set up a roadside farm stand to sell the excess of summer vegetables she'd been producing. The display had an umbrella to shield the vegetables from the summer sun, a price list and a cigar box to collect the money on the honor system.
After some time she realized that a woman and her son were routinely stealing zucchini. Infuriated, she installed a video camera to catch them in the act, and did. With hard evidence in hand, she took her complaint to the local police station. By all accounts it was theft, which is a crime.
Sand reminds his audience that at the end of the growing season, zucchini is so plentiful that you can't give it away. But rather than be dismissive and unresponsive, a Vermont Court Advocate took on the case. Very civilized.
Just by having a conversation, the Court Advocate quickly found that the woman didn't particularly want the thief to be punished or even to make restitution. She certainly didn't want that boy's mother to go to jail. What she did want was to tell that woman how sad and disappointed she was for her and her son.
The Advocate identified the perpetrator from the video, explained the situation and set up a meeting. Together the vic, perp and Advocate had a structured and supervised conversation in a room at the Courthouse. It didn't take long. The regional court system had no more dealings with the offending mom or her son, and for all we know hearing how much they'd betrayed the trust of that vegetable-vendor put them both on the straight and narrow.
But whatever the effect on the offenders, the conversation made the victim happy. She was, after all, in the right – however trivially. And she was only asking to be heard.
Now you may think that spending Court resources on such a crime is a waste of taxpayers' money. But I'm entirely with the vegetable lady wanting to hold that mom accountable for disrespecting a local honor system. More importantly, modeling theft to the young is always a bad idea, no matter how petty. I don't think I could have confronted that mom without some authority standing by me. Where else could she have turned?
Sand's point is that we can no longer let Courts act as official non-listeners. Very often, hearing the victims' stories shows the case in a surprisingly different light. And many times, as in this one, listening can just make a case go away, with a little learning and healing under the parties' belts.
But what we've got right now is a judicial system that is not only blind, but stone deaf. Where's the justice in that?
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.