Making Victims' Voices Heard
Editor's note: Victims who are interested in such a meeting
contact VVH and receive a packet of information explaining the process.
Once victims decide to move ahead with the process, VVH evaluates
whether or not the offenders are good candidates for the programme.
Only those who have accepted responsibility for the crime and show
remorse are considered. This evaluation process includes consultation
with the staff of the correctional facility and interviews with
offenders who are interested in meeting the victims. Participation in
the programme does not affect an offender’s sentence in any way.
Once the VVH staff decides that the victim and offender are suitable for a face-to-face meeting, they start a four-to six-month preparation process for both victim and offender. This includes separate meetings with each held every other week and writing assignments for each designed to help both victim and offender learn to communicate their emotions, desires and issues to be raised in the meeting. Two months prior to the actual meeting, VVH arranges for the victim and offender to exchange letters communicating their reasons and hopes for the meeting.
Offenders may have a support person from the prison staff attend the
meetings, if they wish, and victims may choose someone to attend as a
supporter as well. Just prior to the meeting, VVH staff orient victims
and their supporters to the prison environment. During the meeting, the
facilitator provides a brief introduction and then allows each side
uninterrupted time to speak. Facilitators generally play a
non-directive role in the process, only acting to ensure the safety and
comfort of each of the parties.
After the meeting, VVH staff members conduct separate follow-up
meetings with the victims and the offenders for debriefing. These
happen immediately following the meeting, three days later, and finally
two months after the meeting.
In the article below, Kim Book, programme coordinator for VVH,
describes her experience with the criminal justice system and shares a
victim perspective on the mediation process.
Ten years ago my 17 year-old daughter Nicole, my only child, was stabbed to death in her home by a 16 year-old young man she knew. I can remember waking up the morning after Nicole’s death wondering how I would bury my daughter if I did not know who had killed her and why. The young man who murdered her was arrested that next day, 24 hours after her murder.
I waited a year for him to be
sentenced and all the while I never felt a part of the justice system.
I felt like nothing more than an outsider looking in, never made to
feel a part of what decisions were made. I was told this was a crime
against the state but how could that be? I was the one who gave birth
to Nicole. I was the one who raised her, taught her to walk, took care
of her when she was sick, put braces on her teeth. How could it be that
my thoughts, feelings and needs were not taken into account when
deciding what would happen to the person who took her away from “me”,
not the state?
When it came time for the trial I was told I could make a “Victims Impact Statement”. I was told I could not address the person who killed Nicole, I could only address the judge and the court. But the judge and the court did not kill Nicole, the young man sitting next to me killed her. Shouldn’t I have the right to speak to him? Shouldn’t he hear from me since it was my life he had changed? I walked away from the justice system that day, nine years ago, knowing there had to be more the state of Delaware could do for victims of crime and also for holding offenders accountable in a way that teaches them not to re-offend, to understand the full consequences of their actions.
Seven years ago I became a mediator for the Center for Community Justice, a program of People’s Place II. Three years ago I became the program coordinator for a mediation program that gives victims of severe violence the opportunity to meet with their incarcerated offender. The program is called Victims’ Voices Heard. I became a part of the Restorative Justice movement in the United States but more importantly a part of the Restorative Justice movement in Delaware. I believe victims ought to have a voice in what happens to their offender. And I believe offenders need to be held accountable for the harm they have caused by seeing the real human costs of what they have done.
Victims need answers. What happened? Why did it happen to me? Why did I act as I did at the time? Why have I acted as I have since that time? What if it happens again? What does this mean for me and my future? Victims need to speak the truth about what happened to them and to be heard and affirmed. In spite of what we say we do not listen to victims. We do not seek to give them back some of what they lost. We do not let them help to decide how the situation should be resolved. We do not help them to recover. The following comment was written by a victim who participated in Victims’ Voices Heard.
“Recently I had the opportunity to take part in a program called Victims’ Voices Heard (VVH). It is a Restorative Justice program based on a Texas model. Delaware is one of only 16 U.S. states to have a program like this. VVH provides victims of violent crimes with an opportunity to work through all the “stuff” associated with the crime and to speak directly to the person who caused them harm, if they so desire.
"By the grace of God I survived a violent attack twenty some years ago. Unfortunately I never dealt with the crime’s impact on me or my family. The offender has been incarcerated ever since; I went on to live my life. And never the two shall meet. Right? Until now.
"In January of this year, I spoke with Kim Book and found out Victims’ Voices Heard was a way I could work through the feelings related to being victimized and get my other needs met as well. (Feelings like rage, grief, humiliation, shame, guilt, and fear have been a part of me for a l-o-n-g time. It has been an amazing journey of healing ever since.
"It has also been an opportunity to get answers to the many questions I was left with after the trauma. Once a person is victimized they often are left with numerous questions. Mine seemed endless.
"I also had the amazing opportunity to face my greatest fear—to face the man who terrified me and to express my honest feelings to him. All the feelings mentioned above including my decision and desire to forgive him.
"Any person who has been a victim of burglary/assault/ rape, drunk-driving crash, murder or any other act of severe violence could find help through this program.
"So now I have received answers to my questions, have had my needs addressed, and have told my offender the truth of how the crime he committed impacted me. I also had the chance to seek empowerment and restitution.
"My life has taken a dramatically positive turn recently. I just wanted to share some “good news” with the hope that at least one more person may benefit.”
Usually offenders are not forced to face up to their
rationalizations and stereotypes. They are never made to assume full
responsibility for their crime. Offenders need to understand the human
consequences of their actions and be encouraged to make things right to
the extent that it is possible to do so. Offenders should participate
in finding ways that this can be done. That is real accountability.
How can we ever expect offenders to be released from our prisons and not re-offend if they never make a connection with their crime and the harm that was caused by it?
It has taken three years but Delaware is beginning to grasp the concept that it’s not enough to send someone to prison for their crime and expect victims to heal themselves. Victims need us to help them heal. They need us to help them find the answers they seek and to hear them tell and re-tell the stories of their pain.
And we need to step back and take a long hard look at what we call
“rehabilitation” when it comes to offenders. We can’t just keep locking
them up and throwing away the key then expect offenders to return to
society and never hurt anyone again. We need to stop fooling ourselves.
We need to teach offenders to hold themselves accountable for the harm
they have caused by having them see and hear about that harm.
Is crime an offense against society, or the state? Crime is first an offense against people, and it is here that we should start in trying to heal the harm that was caused. These are the principles of restorative justice and in these principles we can help to restore justice for victims of crime.
Victims’ Voices Heard
302-730-3678 ext 125