If one set out to design a system for provoking intrusive post-traumatic symptoms, one could not do better than a court of law.

-Judith Lewis Herman

Howard ZehrOne of the failures of the criminal justice system in the United States is that the needs of victims have been traditionally ignored. When someone is charged with committing a crime the plaintiff isn’t the victim. The plaintiff is the state. The crime is against “the state.” The needs of the victim are almost universally ignored.

Last night I watched Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, the documentary about Polanski’s trial in the 1970’s over having sex with a 13-year old. Though it is a powerful film on many levels a statement by Polanski’s victim, now in her forties, is most salient regarding what I’m studying this week. She said that though she was young she could see that the judge didn’t care about her or about Polanski.

The second day of our class on Restorative Justice began with the showing of a film, Victims of Crime: A Life Sentence. It’s a series of interviews with victims of crimes (burglary, rape, murder, a woman who had to choose which child to save when a man with a shotgun was roaming her house). It was not a fun movie to watch. I felt profound sadness. I don’t want these images in my head, yet this is our work. These are the hurt and sometimes broken people who are all members of my human family. We are connected.

Someone robs someone. The robber will be sentenced to an average term of 2 years. Victims receive a life sentence. The trauma goes on forever. Their trauma then affects their family members and friends.

The people in the film expressed deep pain, loss, and sadness. Some wondered if there was something they could’ve done differently that would have allowed for a different ending. There were lots of “what if’s.” They tended to live in the past with an inability to move on. It was difficult to tell if the crime being described happened recently or twenty years ago. For some the past is always present.

We witnessed guilt and self-blame which added to the damage. Whether the crime was murder or a stolen car it was very personal to the victim. Pain is pain. It is big to the victim whether it seems significant for others or not. There was a sense of powerlessness. How does one regain a sense of control?

We discussed what we thought these folks needed from justice. Those needs clearly varied from person to person. For some it was vengeance. For all of them we saw a need for meaning. Why did this happen to me? They needed to be whole again. Victims grieved differently. The divorce rate among people who have lost children to crime is very high because parents are often on different tracks and have very different needs.

Howard Zehr wrote Transcending: Reflections of Crime Victims, a book of testimonies and photographs of victims of crime and the family members of victims. After decades of working in this field he has concluded that crime is traumatic for pretty much all victims whether the offenses are considered “minor” or “serious” by others. There is a cycle of feelings that victims go through including disbelief, fear, vulnerability, loss of control, isolation, anger, humiliation, doubt, and grief. They experience recurring dreams, memories, and strong emotions. Victims have many questions. They often feel shame. It is clear that in American culture it is shameful to be a victim and people can be judged harshly depending on how they respond to being victimized.

So what do victims need?

In North America we have certain pillars that define well being. We want a sense of autonomy. I need to be in control of my own life. We want a sense of order and safety. If the world is basically orderly, and I can find answers, I’ll be okay. We want a sense of relatedness. Where do I fit in the web of relationships? When we are victimized we have to revisit the same issues we faced when we were growing up: empowerment, connection, identity, and order.

Victims journey toward meaning. Our meaning in life is found in our stories. Finding meaning as a victim involves re-storying; creating new meaning, drawing new boundaries, incorporating painful experiences, and transforming humiliation into honor.

Victims want to balance the scale. Getting even is the basic need for reciprocity. Howard suggests that the reason we want revenge and the giving of Christmas gifts comes from the same place. The need to even the score is fundamental. I found this comparison startling when I heard it. But it makes sense. We do seem to require balance and reciprocity in all things.

To achieve justice there are several needs victims want met by the judicial system. These include safety, answers, truth-telling, empowerment, and vindication. The problem is that our system of justice rarely meets any of these needs.

NEXT: What does justice require for offenders?