Australian Institute of Criminology

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The victim's perspective

Heather Strang and Lawrence W Sherman
ISSN 1328-3006 ; ISBN 0 7315 2801 8
Australian National University, Canberra
RISE Working Papers, no. 2
April 1997

All over the modern world, victims are the forgotten players in the drama of criminal justice, exploited for their evidence but otherwise abandoned. Victims say that little attention is given to the repair of the harm they have experienced personally, or to the psychological and emotional consequences of victimisation. They also say that they feel frustrated and alienated from the justice system, where both the process and the outcome of court procedures fail to take proper account of their perspective.

The introduction by Canberra's police of a radical alternative to traditional court processing, called Diversionary Conferencing in the ACT, gives victims an opportunity to redress the shortcomings of the justice system from their point of view. It provides them with a forum to explain directly all the harm they have experienced as a result of the offence and to be part of the process that decides on a suitable outcome to repair that harm. Based on preliminary results from the evaluation study of conferencing being conducted by criminologists at the ANU, victims are faring better with this new alternative system.

Conferences were introduced to Canberra in 1994 following juvenile justice reforms in New Zealand, where conferencing plays a major role, and after a similar system had been tried in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. Instead of prosecuting a case in court, where offenders admit responsibility for the crime the police may convene a conference attended by the people most affected by the crime: the victims, the offenders and their families and friends.

How conferences work

The conference begins with statements by the offenders about what they did, followed by statements by the victims about the harm the crime caused, both material and psychological. Supporters of both are then asked to discuss the crime, its impact, and the best way to repair the harm it has caused. The police officer facilitating the conference, who has no role in determining the outcome, asks the victims if they have any recommendations about appropriate punishment or restitution. This can include cash payments or services by the offenders. The officer then states the emerging consensus, and asks the offenders whether they will agree to the terms. Usually the terms include an apology to the victim, if it has not already spontaneously been made. In all but one case so far, the offenders have agreed to the terms. If they fail to meet the terms within the agreed-upon time period, the case can still be sent to court for prosecution. But if that happens, the admissions made by the offender in the conference may not be used as evidence of their guilt.

The Canberra conferences are being independently tested under a controlled evaluation by ANU's Research School of Social Sciences, funded by the Criminology Research Council and the Commonwealth Department of Health and Family Services. The victims voluntarily participating in the evaluation include people who have experienced assault (except for domestic and sexual assault which are excluded from the conferencing program), as well as burglary, criminal damage and other personal property crime. Victims also include store owners and managers who catch juvenile shoplifters. Some of the victims have suffered no personal financial consequences themselves, as the crimes have been perpetrated against their employers, but agree to participate in conferences at police request.

Under the scientific design of the evaluation, half the cases are assigned to court and the other half are assigned to conferences. This procedure helps ensure the only major difference between the two groups of victims is the decision on court or conference. ANU interviews with 35 victims of offenders sent to conferences and 36 victims of offenders sent to court were conducted within an average of 100 days after the offender was apprehended by police, an average of 55 days after the case went to court and 54 days after the conference took place. The first 71 interviews represent about 90% of all victims eligible for interview to date.

How Conferences Help Victims

The initial results show that conferences make victims feel safer and more involved with the process of punishing offenders. At the outset, when a case is to be dealt with by a conference, victims are almost five times more likely to be informed when their case is scheduled to be heard than if the case is sent to court. Of the victims invited to conferences, 86 per cent actually attended them, compared to only three per cent of those whose cases were assigned to court.

By attending the conference, victims were much more likely to receive an apology from the offender (74%) than if the offender was sent to court (11%). This is especially important because almost all victims say they believe they should receive an apology. It is apparent in conferences that an emotional reconciliation with the offender is considered by victims to be far more important than material reparation.

Offenders sometimes apologise outside a conference setting, but the victim may never know. In one burglary case the offender told the court that he knew the burglary he had committed was wrong and he wanted to apologise to the victim for what he had done. The victim was not present in court, but when she was interviewed later said that she was very upset over the burglary but said "mostly I wanted an apology". She will never know that the offender wanted to say he was sorry.

When apologies are added to money, services, or other material compensation, conference victims were ten times more likely to receive some form of repair for the harm of the crime (83%) than victims whose cases were assigned to court (8%). This difference may have helped reduce the anger conference victims felt towards the offenders, from 60 per cent feeling "quite" or "very" angry before the conference to only 30 per cent afterwards. At the same time, the proportion of victims feeling sympathetic for the offenders almost doubled (from 23% to 43%) after victims saw offenders in their family and life circumstances during the conference.

Conferences seem to make victims feel safer than court. Conferenced victims are less likely to worry about looking out for suspicious people. Only ten per cent of victims were still afraid of the offenders after the conference. Victims attending conferences were also less likely to fear that the offender would victimise them again (6%) than victims whose offenders were sent to court (19%; though this difference was statistically significant only at the 10% level).

Conferences give victims a better feeling than court about the offender's future conduct. Only time - and further evaluation - will tell if they are right, but the proportion of victims anticipating that the offender will commit future offences against anyone is less then half as much for victims assigned to conferences (31%) than for those sent to court (67%).

All of the differences just noted are statistically significant at the five per cent level, which means there is less than a five per cent probability that the finding was due to chance. The results could change when all the victim interviews in the evaluation are completed over the next two years. But for now, it is notable that none of the measures of victim reaction show that their experiences are significantly worse in conferences than in court, and that all the significant differences are in favour of conferences.

In the victims' own words

The statistics are far less eloquent than the victims themselves. One victim whose bag snatch case was sent to court said that not knowing what had happened in her case made her feel "angry and let down". She said "I'm supposed to be the victim, and I'm treated like this".

Even when victims find out the court date for their case, they may have a bad experience. One young girl and her family attended court but did not have the courage to ask if they could witness proceedings: indeed, they would not have been permitted to do so because the offender was a juvenile. As the offender left the courtroom the offender's parents saw the victim's family and verbally abused them. Relations between the families, who are neighbours, are now worse than before the court case.

Not all victims whose cases were sent to court were concerned about their lack of status in the processing of their case. Small shopkeepers and shop managers who were the victims of repeated thefts were generally uninterested in the way their cases were dealt with in court. It appears that the more personal the victimisation, the more strongly victims feel about the lack of a role for them in the court process.

The victims of personal crimes whose cases were dealt with by conferences expressed themselves quite powerfully, however. One commented that at the start of her conference "I had this enormous amount of anger that I wanted to shout out, but I felt very defensive. I was so angry that I was sitting there literally shaking". Then as the conference got underway "I was able to say all the things I'd been thinking about for all those weeks and explain how angry I was... to put him in the picture of how it affected us made me feel so much better... I felt a great sense of relief of getting it off my chest".

Victims who attended conferences frequently commented on the relief they experienced at seeing who the offenders really were. One said "You realise they aren't the monsters you'd made them out to be... I don't have to feel conscious of people walking past and thinking, are they the ones? Are they the enemy?"

Victims also commented on the sense of closure that a conference gave them. One victim had the offender visit the small shop where she was working. She said "He could have bolted when he saw I was there, but he waited and I spoke to him, I smiled at him and we had a chat. He sort of smiled when he left and I knew he felt at ease because he's apologised. And I felt comfortable with him despite the fact that I know who he is and what he's done, I wasn't scared. And if I met him in a dark alley I wouldn't be frightened of him and that's a nice feeling."

The family of one young victim felt transformed by the conference experience. Their eight-year-old son had been knocked unconscious after an argument by the 14-year-old offender. They were initially very upset at the prospect of the incident being dealt with by a conference - they said they wanted to "throw the book" at the offender. They later described the conference as an extraordinary experience. "It was very fair to everybody. As a result of the conference we've become friends with Sam's (the offender's) parents. Sam had to come and do some gardening for us to make up for what he did. [Our son] became very friendly with him and used to go out and help him with the work. We are very pleased the case went to a conference because Chris (the victim) could see what happened and that made him feel better. He would never have known that Sam had to pay for what he did if the case had gone to court."

While not all of the victims attending conferences were this positive, only a few had very negative things to say. These comments tend to be made when the offence is against an institution or a large shop where the victims are not emotionally engaged with the offender or the crime, and where they are subject to repeated victimisation.

Future prospects

The ANU evaluation will ultimately measure whether conferences prevent repeat offending more effectively than court proceedings. Whatever the results may show, it is important for the criminal justice system to pay more attention to victims. The preliminary results of the evaluation provide reason to believe conferences can serve victims better than court, at least for the relatively minor crimes, mostly committed by juveniles, that take up so much of the courts' time and attention. If conferences turn out to be at least as effective as courts in preventing repeat offending, then Canberra's police will have demonstrated a better way to help victims of crime.

Heather Strang is a Research Fellow in the Law Program at the Research School of Social Sciences, ANU, and Project Manager of the Reintegrative Shaming Experiments (RISE). Lawrence W Sherman of the University of Maryland is an Adjunct Professor of Law at the Research School of Social Sciences, ANU and Scientific Director of RISE.