Seeking Parallel Justice: A New Agenda for the Victims Movement
By Susan Herman, Executive Director, National Center for Victims of Crime
National Press Club Luncheon
December 15, 2000
Good afternoon, and thank you for that generous introduction.
I am honored by the invitation to address the National Press Club and to propose a new
agenda for the victims' movement.
My hope today is that I can bring the voices of real people to you. People across America
who have been victims of crime.
For the past 25 years I have worked on behalf of victims in many different settings: from
teaching self-defense in a rape crisis center, to running emergency housing and day care
for battered women and children, to helping victims in the precincts of the New York City
Now, every day at the National Center for Victims of Crime we receive dozens of calls on
our 800 line (1-800-FYI-CALL) from people around the country who don't know where to turn,
who feel isolated and can't find help, many feel ignored, and disrespected by our
Over the years, I've learned that victims are far from unanimous about what should happen
to offenders, but all victims want to feel safe, recover from the trauma they've suffered,
and regain control of their lives.
Let's think for a moment about who crime victims in America are.
In 1999, almost 30 million people in America
became victims of crimes.
While victims are people of all races, all
ages, all walks of life, we know that victims of violent crime are disproportionately
young (12 - 24 years of age), male, black, and poor.
Let me put it in very simple terms.
At our current rate of crime, during the next
hour we are together:
- 120 cars will be stolen
- 240 burglaries will be committed
- 2 people will be murdered
- 78 women will be raped
- 240 women will be battered
- 84 new cases of stalking will be reported,
- 360 children will be reported abused or neglected
All in the next hour.
Behind these numbers are real people, real
families, and real communities. All of us have been touched by crime.
Some victims move on with their lives fairly
easily, but many suffer continuing trauma without the services and support they need.
Victims often suffer lowered academic performance, decreased work productivity, and severe
loss of confidence. Mental illness, suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse are far more
common among crime victims than the general public. Research comparing battered women to
women who haven't been abused shows they are 5 times more likely to attempt suicide, 15
times more likely to abuse alcohol, 4 times more likely to abuse drugs, and 3 times more
likely to be diagnosed as depressed or psychotic.
Although we tend to think of the damage caused
by crime in terms of individual victims, there is also an enormous toll on families,
communities, and society-at-large. When a significant portion of the 30 million people who
become victims of crime each year--remains psychologically, physically, and financially
unstable--there are real consequences. We all suffer.
Fortunately, over the past 30 years,
significant progress has been made recognizing and responding to victims' many needs. Our
social service, health care and private sector responses have all improved. The number of
shelters for battered women has gone from one in 1976 to almost 2,000 today. Several
jurisdictions now give priority for public housing to victims of domestic violence.
It's now more common for doctors and nurses to
recognize and respond to underlying problems, not just injuries. They are learning to see
gang members and abused children, not just gunshot wounds and broken arms.
Even some businesses have come to realize that
to be successful, they must help employees cope with crime-related emergencies. They
understand that crime not only has an impact on individual health and safety, but
ultimately, on productivity.
During this period, the criminal justice system
changed as well. It is now far more common for victims to be informed about the status of
their case, consulted regarding plea negotiations, present during critical stages of the
case, and heard in open court, reading victim impact statements.
Many police departments, district attorneys
offices and courts have established victim services to guide victims through the criminal
justice process. Restitution is considered far more frequently. Orders of protection are
Hundreds of victims' rights statutes have been
enacted and 32 states have passed crime victims' rights amendments to their state
While we have made enormous progress
developing greater sensitivity to victims, we have also accepted the status quo. New
initiatives have been created within existing service delivery systems. And primarily we
have asked, how can we improve the experience of victims within the criminal justice
Unfortunately, in my view, we have merely
tinkered with a system that was created for very different purposes and hoped it would
meet the needs of victims. But this is largely wishful thinking. First of all, most
victims don't get a chance to participate in the criminal justice process because their
offenders were never arrested or prosecuted. Second, even if victims of crime had maximum
opportunities to participate and be heard in the criminal justice system--it's inevitable
that many would remain profoundly disappointed because the clear focus of the criminal
justice system is the offender, and not the victim.
Our response to victims of crime continues to
be horribly incomplete because we fail to ask a fundamental question: How should society
respond to victims of crime? We fail to ask, What is justice for victims?
We don't usually think about victims in our
conception of justice. Justice is what
happens to an offender. Was the offender treated fairly, were his rights respected, did
the sentence make sense? What happens to offenders, however, does not necessarily address
the needs of victims.
While victims appreciate that justice is
served if the criminal justice system is fair and the outcomes are appropriate, surely
justice for victims is more than the arrest and adjudication of offenders.
Think of it this way--crimes are violations of
communal norms. When offenders are brought to the bar of justice, they are held
accountable by the state for harms suffered by individuals. There is a societal response
to the offender that says, "You violated the law and we will hold you accountable,
punish you if it is appropriate, isolate you if needed, and offer you services to help
reintegrate you into the community."
The individuals who have been harmed--the
victims of crime--have no comparable experience of a societal response to them. There is
no statement that says, "What happened to you was wrong." No response that says:
"We will help you rebuild your life."
The same event produces both an offender and a
victim. Yet, so far, we have only created a path to justice for offenders. We must begin
to pursue justice for both parties.
Of course, we should still advocate for fair
and respectful treatment of victims within the traditional criminal justice system for at
least two reasons. First, victims, and the public at large will have greater trust and
confidence in the system if victims' views are heard, regardless of the outcome. Second,
participation and fair treatment in the process of determining what happens to an offender
is often an essential part of what victims need in the aftermath of crime.
But we must ask whether the criminal justice
system provides the best opportunities to address victims' needs. When only one in five
crimes reported to the police results in an arrest, is criminal court really the best
place to provide a "communal response" to victims? Why should victims of crime
need to have their offenders apprehended to be acknowledged? Can we provide a way for
victims to be heard, and to ask for help, outside our current justice system?
In my view, we need to separate the pursuit of
justice for victims from the administration of justice for offenders. We need to create
two distinct visions of justice. One for victims and one for offenders. We need to
establish a system of "Parallel Justice."
Let's imagine a world in which society responds
to victims' immediate needs at the time of the crime, not just at the trial or later.
Imagine a world in which there is a Red Cross for crime victims, just as there is for
hurricane and flood victims. Imagine we responded to all victims, every individual victim
of any crime, with the commitment we brought to Columbine.
Imagine a world where police feel it is their
responsibility to restore safety for victims, not just collect evidence, where the
department of social services offers emergency housing, not just to battered women, but to
all crime victims who need it--to victims of gang violence, sexual assault, or
burglary--to intimidated witnesses who can no longer live in their neighborhoods without
Imagine that each community provides a forum
for victims to express their needs. Imagine that local governments made helping crime
victims a priority. Imagine a society that felt that justice required that every effort be
made to help all victims of crime.
Let's think about how this might work.
What should we do for the woman who has been
mugged, now too afraid to leave her home to buy food or go to work? Should she be offered
counseling, should we try to organize transportation for her? I think so.
How should we help the man who's been shot who
can no longer use his hands to perform his old job? Should we help him learn how to earn a
living a new way? I think so.
What can we say to the elderly victim of a
telemarketing scam who lost his entire life savings and can't earn it back? Should we
offer emergency financial assistance? I think so.
What can we offer the battered woman who
wants desperately to leave her violent home but will need a job, day care, and new housing
to do it? Can we make her a priority? Yes.
What do we say to the young victim of sexual
assault, incest or child abuse, who has begun to use drugs to numb the pain? Can we give
him priority access to drug treatment? I think we should.
So the first principle of parallel justice
is that we marshal government resources to help victims feel safe and get back on track.
Quite frankly, we need to reintegrate victims as well as offenders.
Let me be clear that I also believe there is a
role for offenders in this process. Offenders who are apprehended should make restitution.
If victims want more information about the crime (some do, some don't), offenders can give
them a more complete understanding of what happened and why. If they acknowledge
responsibility, they can also contribute to a victim's well-being in ways nobody else can.
They can offer apologies and remorse.
But, in a system of parallel justice, there is
a role for society at large, represented by the state, in repairing the harm. Only the
government can marshal the many resources needed to address victims' long-term,
complicated problems. The health care, the job training, or the relocation needs of
victims--usually cannot be addressed by offenders alone. Society as a whole should be
asked to play a role.
While offenders should be asked to do as much
as they can, society at large has a separate obligation to help victims return to
productive, communal life.
All victims should be offered a variety of
services from counseling and psychotherapy to practical assistance, such as new locks for
their doors and new glass for broken windows. And services should go beyond crisis
intervention to address ongoing needs. A crime may last only moments, but its impact can
be felt for a lifetime. So our first principle is to restore safety and then make every
effort to repair the harm.
Second, all victims should be eligible for
victims' compensation. Under our current system, compensation is limited to victims of
violent crime. If you are mugged on the street, you may get compensation for lost wages
and medical bills. The victim of burglary, however, who also lost wages and is terrified
in her own home typically gets no support. We don't offer help to the victim of identity
theft who can't get a mortgage--who has lost her good name and good credit rating. We
don't provide financial resources to victims of fraud left destitute.
Under some state laws, even victims of violent
crime may be denied compensation if they are deemed unworthy. Recently, a woman who'd been
raped and badly beaten for hours, was denied
compensation because she used cocaine in the
past. A man who suffered horrendous physical injury was denied compensation because he had
been indicted, not convicted, for using drugs.
In North Carolina, many battered women were
denied compensation because they had been living with, but not married to, their abuser.
Fortunately, after substantial press attention, many of these decisions were reversed.
But, some states still routinely deny compensation to any victim with a criminal record.
In a system of parallel justice, a victim of crime is a victim of crime, and all deserve
some level of reimbursement for their losses.
Of course, the government could never fully
reimburse some victims for the catastrophic losses they have suffered. We will always have
caps on what is possible and private insurance will continue to cover many losses. But in
extreme cases, why not at least give victims access to interest-free loans to help them
get back on track? We do it for flood victims, why not for victims of crime?
In our search for parallel justice let's
examine how other countries respond to victims. In Australia, there's a separate
administrative hearing, where victims can appear in person or submit a written statement.
The purpose is to allow victims an opportunity to voice their needs, and the government,
an opportunity to respond. Australians can have the "day in court" victims so
desperately want because this forum is about victims--all victims, with or without an
In America, victim compensation covers funeral
expenses, missed days of work, medical bills for physical injuries, and lost wages. Some
states include crime scene clean-up and relocation expenses. But no state in America
recognizes and provides significant compensation for the pain and suffering of crime
In several other countries--including
Australia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and France --victims are given a predetermined
award by the government to acknowledge the pain and suffering they've experienced. This is
in addition to reimbursement for specific financial losses. In Germany and Belgium, courts
have the authority to award victims damages as part of the criminal trial--same judge,
There are many systems to examine and many
lessons to learn--but let us at least begin by expanding our current system of
compensation to include all victims of crime and let's create real, local authority to
marshal government resources on behalf of victims.
I'm sure by now some of you are wondering
how we can afford all this. For a moment let's consider the enormous social costs of not
Every year millions of Americans become
victims of crime. Many change their lives dramatically. They stay home at night. They
restrict themselves to certain neighborhoods. They abuse drugs and alcohol to cope with
their pain. Some lose jobs because they have crime-related disabilities or because they
missed work to attend court. Some victims learn violent behavior and grow up to become
criminals themselves--all of these constitute enormous losses to society.
And let's look at some of our criminal justice
budget items. Since 1994, Congress has appropriated over $5 billion to hire new police
officers and over $2 billion for state prison construction.
Last year, state and federal governments spent
$2.1 billion on programs such as halfway houses, work release centers, house arrest,
electronic monitoring, parole transition centers, parole/work furlough, and
alcohol/substance abuse and sex offender treatment--all efforts to get offenders back on
track. Now it's time for Congress and the states to find more funding to help victims get
back on track.
What does the federal government currently do
for victims? Not much. Under the 1984 Victims of Crime Act, last year, the federal
government gave states $450 million for victim services and victim compensation. This
money was all from offender fines and penalties; none of it was appropriated from general
tax revenues. While offenders absolutely should contribute to the effort, there is
something fundamentally wrong with committing tax dollars to fund every aspect of our
response to crime--except helping victims.
Of course, there are some exceptions. Most
notably, since 1994, Congress has appropriated over $1 billion under the Violence Against
Women Act. We supported this Act and worked hard to get it reauthorized. These funds
helped thousands, if not millions, of women across America, receive the counseling, the
housing, the support they needed, to escape violence.
To create parallel justice though, we must
forge a national commitment to help all victims of crime, not just battered women and rape
victims, and we must commit tax dollars to the effort, not just rely on offender fines to
accomplish the task.
In this season of political transition, with
a new president and a new Congress taking office next month, we call upon our leadership
to enact a new Victims of Crime Act. This legislation would expand the scope of
compensation to include all victims of crime. Local leaders would be challenged to assess
the needs of victims in their community, establish a process for meeting those needs, and
combine federal and local resources to make parallel justice a reality.
The justice we seek will also produce a
In a forthcoming study by the National Council
on Crime and Delinquency, our partner in a special project on teen victims, the NCCD
looked at data collected by the National Adolescent Health Survey and determined the
single greatest factor in predicting criminal behavior on the part of teenagers--the most
significant risk factor--was not teenage pregnancy, or drug use, or truancy--but whether
they had been a victim of crime.
Surely this should serve as a wake-up call. It
is in our interest as a nation to help victims of crime not only because it's the right
thing to do--not only because our country would be healthier and more productive--but
because helping victims may turn out to be one of the most effective ways to prevent
further crime and violence.
We have made a lot of progress
recently--crafting new approaches to justice for offenders. We now speak of solving
problems, not just processing cases. We now have community courts, drug courts, domestic
violence courts, and soon we will have re-entry courts.
Our concept of justice for victims must evolve
as well. Every school child in America knows the Miranda warnings. They know if they are
ever accused of violating the law, they will have certain due process rights. In the
future, every child in America should also know--that if they become the victim of a
crime, they have a right to be heard, and that our country will help them rebuild their
They should know they not only have rights to
participate in the system of justice for offenders--but they also have their own system of