Involving Victims

Three times already this year, I have spent time at conferences sponsored by the Correctional Service of Canada, designed to put together a policy that gives better treatment to the victims of crime, in the workings of the justice system.

The members of my homicide support group are likely to feel that it’s not a moment too soon.

The difficulty, though, is that our whole system of criminal justice is designed, not to accommodate victims, but to shut them completely out of the process. Under such a system, reconciliation between victim and offender is impossible.

In a recent series of talks on the CBC, the Dutch professor of criminology, Herman Bianchi, mentioned how, in the days of the Roman Empire, there were two levels of dealing with crime. Among citizens, criminal offences were dealt with by way of negotiation between offender and the victim, or the victim’s family, to be settled by payment of damages. Beating or imprisonment were out of the picture: execution (by beheading) was only for political crimes against the Emperor. Hence the frequent times in the Acts of the Apostles when Saint Paul claimed the privileges of Roman citizenship, and the authorities were forced to apologize to him when he had been beaten or imprisoned.

Slaves, however, were in a different position. They could be beaten, tortured, imprisoned, even crucified, at the command of their owner or the magistrates.

So whereas in Aboriginal societies, and in Saxon England before the Norman conquest, crimes were settled by a process of compensation between offender and victim, it was the process of punishment first adapted for slaves and introduced by the Norman conquest which is the basis of the criminal law and procedures we have in Canada today. Crime is treated as rebellion against the Crown. The feelings and fate of the victim of crime goes by the wayside.

We are really dealing with two views of society. In one, citizens sit at a ‘round table’, and work out problems together in a spirit of problem solving and equality. Slaves, though, are those at the bottom of a pyramid, and above them are taskmasters, nobles, and ultimately the Pharaoh, the Monarch, or the Emperor himself. So the criminal law system we enjoy in Canada is one of punishment, slavery and control, not citizenship and mutual respect.

Jesus never wanted his disciples to “lord it over” the members of his church—even though the church itself has frequently not reflected this attitude in its structure and actions. So here’s hoping that the current experiments in diversion, sentencing circles and the like in criminal law, particularly in the case of young offenders and the first nations, prove themselves of value in bringing us to a more humane society.

– Anglican Messenger, 2001*
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