In America, we have misconstrued the purpose of the criminal justice system. Rather than focusing on victim restitution and restoration, where possible, the government has claimed a monopoly over responses to crime. As a result, our fixation on the prerogatives of the government has too often marginalized the rights and voices of victims.
This week (April 10-16) is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week – a time set aside to honor victims and their advocates as well as promote their rights. It is a week reserved to turn our attention to the true consumers of the corrections system – those who have been personally wronged by an offender.
Now, Texas lawmakers have the opportunity to advance two key bills this session that would give victims a greater voice – one which provides the option of victim-offender mediation and the other which gives property crime victims basic rights such as the right to receive notice about proceedings and provide input on what would constitute an appropriate sentence.
Today’s corrections system does not incentivize victim compensation. Traditional district attorney performance measures include the number of cases processed, the number of convictions, and the overall conviction rate. However, these volume measurements only reflect an increase in crime, not service to those wronged by crime. To truly measure the accomplishments of a district attorney’s office or probation department, victim satisfaction and restitution must be used as a performance measure.
Certainly, there is a place for prisons. When an offender commits an act of violence or poses a dangerous threat to the victim or society as a whole, prison keeps these people off our streets, and in that regard, must be continued as a viable form of punishment for violent, dangerous, and career criminals. For low-risk, non-violent, first-time offenders, however, alternatives to the traditional sentencing process may be a better option.
When appropriate, victim-offender mediation (where participation is voluntary) offers victims an expedited means of obtaining justice, avoiding long-drawn-out pretrial proceedings, jury selection, and appeals. If the offender fails to comply with the restitution and community service agreement reached through the mediation, the case is referred for traditional prosecution. However, studies have found mediation, which is most commonly used in low-level property offense cases, is far more successful in actually collecting restitution for victims than the traditional court process.
House Bill 2019 by Rep. Ruth McClendon would authorize counties to, if they so choose, establish such a mediation program. Referrals would be made with the consent of the prosecutor.
A nationwide survey found 95 percent of cases resolved through victim-offender mediation result in a written agreement – 90 percent of which are completed within one year, far exceeding the average restitution collection rate of just 20 to 30 percent. This is largely due to the fact that during mediation, the offender typically does not receive a conviction on their record record, and as such, they are more likely to maintain employment, which enables them to pay restitution.
Additionally, nearly four in five victims who went through a mediation process said they were satisfied with the results, compared to just 57 percent of victims who went through the traditional court system.
Mediation allows the victim to have a voice in the process, as the individual – not the government – is given the power to determine the offenders’ penalty. Moreover, offenders, who usually must apologize as part of the mediation agreement, often begin to understand the impact of their transgression, which some researchers say lowers the number of individuals who re-offend. For example, the 1,298 juveniles who participated in mediation during the aforementioned survey were 32 percent less likely to re-offend than if they had gone through the traditional process. Alternative solutions, like mediation, give a voice to victims and work towards breaking the cycle of crime.
Another bill that would empower victims is House Bill 1715 by Rep. Jodie Laubenberg. Currently, Texas law only confers rights on victims of violent crime. This bill would provide some of those same rights to victims of felony property crimes. These rights would include the right to be informed about court proceedings in the case, the right to restitution for stolen property, and the right to provide input on what would be a just sentence.
In December 2010, I helped launch Right on Crime – a nationwide conservative criminal justice reform initiative. This project prioritizes victims’ rights and works with policymakers to ensure victims are treated with dignity and respect and given the choice to participate, receive restitution, and even reconcile, when appropriate, with suitable and truly repentant offenders. Moreover, Right on Crime believes the amount and share of restitution should be recorded and used as a performance measure for probation and parole systems.
We need to refocus the criminal justice system on victims as the primary consumers of justice and ensure restitution is collected first, followed by any fines and fees owed to the government. During National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, let us remember those who have been wronged by offenders and make certain they are given a greater role in the process of achieving justice.
Marc A. Levin is Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin. He is a leader of the Foundation’s Right on Crime initiative.