Rebecca Weiker, Re:store Justice Program Director
In her recent New Yorker article about the unlikely alliance of feminists and conservatives that helped create the victim’s rights movement, Jill Lapore defines victim rights and offender rights as in opposition to each other. Restorative Justice offers an alternative approach, addressing the needs of both victims and offenders in order to create healing, offer reparations, promote accountability, and prevent future harm.
At Re:store Justice, our mission is to respond to the needs of both victims and offenders, with the understanding that systemic oppression and intergenerational trauma are foundational to much of the violence in our society. We believe that victims’ needs can be met most fully when our response is grounded in human rights and facilitated by a restorative approach.
A 2008 Human Rights Watch report on the U.S. treatment of victims stated that “a criminal justice system based on human rights standards can safeguard the rights of both [victims and offenders] while advancing justice and the rule of law.” These rights include being recognized as a victim, regardless of whether a perpetrator has been identified or arrested; being treated with dignity, compassion and respect; being included and allowed to participate in the criminal justice system; and having the opportunity to “be heard without prejudice to the rights of the accused.” Finally, according to human rights standards, all victims must have their need for safety and healing attended to, and should have access to services that treat their trauma and address other needs related to their experience of victimization.
The victims’ rights movement has advocated for increased opportunities for the victim to have their voice heard by the justice system through the victim impact statement. But the victim impact statement is generally used narrowly, as a means to a specific end: retribution and punishment. A victim is asked to share about their loved one at the trial in order to support maximum punishment of the offender, and sometimes, many years later, at a parole board hearing in order to ensure continued punishment of the offender. In a restorative framework, such statements can be used to meet many other victim needs: the need to be heard, to receive an apology, to ask for accountability, to forgive. In the Restorative Justice context, a victim statement can be used to elicit insight, empathy, remorse and accountability on the part of the offender.
Mitigating factors and victim harm in the criminal justice system are set up as oppositional factors in a zero sum game. The abuse an offender suffered is used to argue for diminished culpability and the harm that a victim suffered is used to argue for greater punishment. Both of these harms exist - we don't need to compare them. Ideally, sentencing should not focus solely on retribution but also take into account the potential for rehabilitation. Opportunities for release should be based on public safety rather than review of fixed factors that the offender will never be able to change because they are related to the original crime. Consideration of mitigating factors allows for the possibility that an act of violence is not the defining or predictive act of an individual’s life. Acknowledging that an offender has the potential to move past their violent behavior does not diminish or devalue the experience of the victim.
Systemic bias in our criminal justice system impacts the way individuals are treated at all levels and stages of the system, from arrest to bail, to sentencing, to parole. Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Patrisse Kahn-Cullors, James Foreman, John Pfaff, and other advocates and scholars have documented the ways in which our criminal justice system is infected by the systemic racism of our society. The value we assign to victims, and the harm done to them, are influenced by these biases. We must acknowledge the impact that bias has on the way we frame the value of victims, and the meaning of the harm done to them in order to truly understand who victims are, the nature of their needs, and how we can best meet those needs. For example, Marsy’s Law, passed as a victim’s rights bill by California voters in 2008, relied on dominant notions of crime, victims and public safety in order to restrict opportunities for parole, framing all victims as lacking power, so that the State could assert power. Additionally, many offenders were victims before they committed their offense. They lose their status as victims after committing a crime. In California, crime victims are not entitled to compensation from the victim compensation board if they are a felon or do not cooperate with law enforcement.
Finally, the criminal justice system simply is not a relevant place to find justice for many victims. Nationally, forty percent of all homicides go unsolved, and in Los Angeles County, 47% of homicides over the decade 2000-2010 were not solved. As the #MeToo movement has revealed, many survivors of sexual assault and abuse never report the violence done to them. There are many reasons for this, including a lack of power and confidence that they will be believed, and fear that the person responsible will not be held accountable.
We believe that victims’ rights can be met most effectively by creating more opportunities for restorative and non-adversarial processes for both victims and offenders within and beyond the criminal justice system. Acknowledging the humanity of victims and offenders allows us to identify and meet the full range of what victims may want from offenders. More than punishment and retribution, their healing may require that the offender is accountable, makes an apology, expresses regret and remorse and makes amends to the extent possible. While these actions cannot be required from an offender, when freely given, they may be the source of true justice.
Rebecca is dedicated to creating opportunities for transformation and healing for everyone impacted by violence, including victims and people responsible for harm. Her work in Restorative Justice is rooted in her longstanding commitment to addressing disparities that impact the health and well being of men, women, and children in communities of color. Rebecca's work is grounded as well in her personal history; her beloved sister Wendy was murdered in 1992.
Rebecca received her Master's Degree in Public Heath Policy (Child and Family Health) from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. She is a certified mediator and Victim Offender Dialogue Facilitator, and is a student of the practices Mindfulness and Mindful Self-Compassion. Rebecca is a certified parent educator through The Center for Nonviolent Education and Parenting and has taught the practice of nonviolent child raising to hundreds of parents and professionals. Today, Rebecca is the Program Director of Re:store Justice, where she leads our transformative justice work with victims and incarcerated individuals, both inside prisons and in the community.
Photo credit: Showing respect to the 3 Mothers at Ironwood / Chuckawalla series - Pep Williams.