This is the first in what I hope will be a series of topics that generate some thoughtful discussion. Other questions I plan to pose include whether victim services are effective in helping victims, are victims better off not participating in the justice system, what does victim satisfaction with the justice system really mean, the evolution of grassroots victims' groups, etc. Each topic could be a thesis paper on its own, but I hope to summarize some of the research and popular views out there. I welcome any other suggestions for topics.
Sentencing is a hot topic in Canada right now. There are a number of bills before Parliament that will result in tougher sentences for many offenders. The government says they are doing this, in part, for victims. There are differing opinions on the value of the bills...most of the academic research says the approach will not make the public safer but supporters say tougher sentences are needed to stop dangerous offenders from re-offending. I want to look at sentencing solely from a victim satisfaction level - do tougher sentences result in higher levels of victim satisfaction?
If you read the papers and watch the news, you would think the answer would be yes. Its not hard to find a victim who is upset about what they perceive is a lenient sentence. Victims groups are often standing with the government as they introduce tougher sentencing legislation.
But as is often the case with justice issues, the research tells a different story. Most of the research I have seen (which is admittedly not all of it) suggests that sentencing is not as important to victims as many people assume it is. For many victims, the process seems to be more important than the outcome.
By process, I mean the investigation and prosecution. If victims feel they were engaged in the process (i.e. kept informed by police and victim services, met the Crown, had decisions explained to them, were able to give opinion and were listened to), they say they were satisfied even if the outcome (i.e. sentence) was not what they might have expected going into it. One of the things that affect the satisfaction of victims who do impact statements is whether the judge acknowledges them and their statement in his/her remarks. It is important for some to know the judge understood their statement. (NOTE - I use the term satisfaction carefully because the justice system is not going to make victims happy or heal them. More to come on this later).
On the other hand, if victims are not kept informed, do not have decisions like plea bargains explained, etc., they are more likely to focus to the sentence as the measure of how serious the system considered the crime. And the sentence alone rarely meets the expectations.
This is not to say that sentencing does not matter. Victims expect offenders to be held accountable. One of the problems though is that the criminal justice system is a complex beast that doesn't always make sense to us "outsiders." Decisions are made about a host of issues that without proper explanation seem to defy logic. There are usually explanations for these decisions. They may not not always be good ones or what the victims want to hear, but it helps to at least understand why a decision has been taken.
Sentencing is really complicated. Judges are guided by various principles, including trying to deter the offender from doing this again and deter others from doing this, rehabilitating the offender, punishing the offender, making the offender accountable for the harm caused to the victim, etc. Judges are also bound by sentences given out for similar crimes.
For many crimes, like sexual assault, the maximum sentence is 10 years but there is no minimum. How does a victim, who knows the max is 10 years, come to terms with the fact that the offender only gets 12 months if no one explains it to her. In this situation, the sentence could re-victimize her and make her wonder why she even bothered putting herself through this process. But, if the police had been responsive to her needs, victim services was able to provide information, the Crown took the time to explain what might happen and the judge acknowledged her pain, she might feel quite different. Research shows that victims are not more punitive than non-victims.
I have dealt with victims who were very upset at the sentence, but usually the sentence was part of a long list of complaints they had. I don't recall too many cases where victims, who were treated really well and had all their needs met, complain about a sentence. That is not to say it does not happen or that there are not victims whose satisfaction is directly tied to the sentence.
I think we should be careful putting too much emphasis on the sentence when it comes to victims, both in raising their expectations that if we just gave the offender the magic number, they would be happy, and in letting politicians and those in the system off the hook by not doing all the other things that victims need.
And yes, I realize that the choice of this topic excludes the majority of victims who choose not the report the crime to police and all the cases that are reported but never make it to the prosecution stage or result in an acquittal.