Susan Herman has nothing against victim-offender dialogue or other restorative-justice techniques. She just wants to start a broader — much, much broader — national conversation about true justice for victims because, she says, "our collective failure to respond to their needs is a national disgrace."
Herman, a criminal justice professor at Pace University, lays out her ideas in the new book Parallel Justice for Victims of Crime, an outgrowth of her work as executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. In the book, the veteran victims' rights advocate asks: What would real parity in the justice system between victims and offenders look like? What if society did not see its help for victims as mere compassion or charity, but a core societal obligation?
In an interview last summer, Herman said policymakers and citizens suffer from ignorance of the extent of the damage that crime causes to victims and society. Some of the ignorance, she says, is willful. "We have not taken that on," she says, "because we don't really understand the impact of not taking it on."
In an accessible, practical and tightly reasoned book, Herman argues for a sort of Marshall Plan for victims. Among the book's main observations:
• Victim-offender dialogue and the broader set of restorative-justice reforms — programs, for example, to involve entire families or communities in deciding an apt response to a case of juvenile delinquency — typically focus on cases where an offender gets caught. That orientation misses a great number of crimes that go unreported or unsolved but have victims, nonetheless.
• Reforms won in the 1970s and '80s helped victims, but not nearly enough, in part because the system that financially compensates them, often through restitution paid by perpetrators, is riddled with loopholes and hobbled by lack of follow-through.
• Police, prosecutors, health care providers, social workers and employers must make a far greater and more coordinated commitment to care for crime victims for all the financial and emotional harm they've suffered. One example: Herman says police at the scene of a crime should give victims detailed information about available services, rather than just a phone number to call. Police lack the time to be social workers — the details
about available victim services could be printed in a brochure — but they're a critical, and often the sole, point of contact with victims. Officers tend to assume the victim will be offered help further down the line in the system but, too often, the help and the victim never connect.
Herman thinks a small fraction of current prison funding could be better directed to expanded victim services, helping society generally without compromising public safety. And she has a bottom line. The criminal justice system, Herman writes, should "respond to every victim of any kind of crime with the same level of creativity and commitment we brought to the victims of the September 11 attacks." If society adopted that attitude (but not necessarily the government's open-pocketbook approach to 9/11), she contends, it finally would begin to meet victims' three basic needs: to be safe, to recover from trauma and to regain control of their lives.