Are all crime victims after revenge? Genesee County criminal justice officials are finding that victims are after something else—something that our criminal justice system rarely offers
In January 1989, David Whittier, a police officer, was talking to the driver of a truck he had stopped on the highway when the truck was rammed from behind by a drunk driver. Whittier was badly hurt in the accident, and he died from the injuries nine months later. Those nine months gave him a lot of time to think about the man who had ended his life.
Whittier requested a face-to-face meeting with the driver, but he died before the meeting could be arranged. About a year later, his wife, Connie, asked for a meeting with the driver, whom we'll call Brad.
“I wanted to look him square in the eye and tell him exactly what I felt about him,” she said. “I wanted my kids to have the chance to say the things that they needed to say, and I wanted to hear him say he was sorry.” That was the easy part.
But there was another more difficult reason Connie asked for the meeting with Brad. With some reluctance, she passed along a message from her late husband—David Whittier had wanted to say that in the last months of his life he had forgiven Brad.
Respect and healing for victims
One out of six crime victims who come in contact with the Genesee County justice system requests a meeting with the offender, says Dennis Wittman, the coordinator of the Community Service and Victim Assistance programs and the visionary behind Genesee Justice. The victims often have questions that can't be answered without meeting the offender: “Why were you doing this?” “Were you stalking us?”
Knowing some of these answers can help victims restore their sense of order and safety, and help them get on with their lives, he says.
Helping crime victims meet with those convicted of wrongdoing is just one way this upstate New York justice system differs from your average county justice system. Dennis Wittman works out of the sheriff's office, but the whole county criminal justice system is oriented around the needs of victims. In addition to responding to their immediate needs following a crime, victims are asked for their input in the sentencing of offenders, and “their participation adds to the wisdom of the system,” says Wittman.
“We've seen many criminal cases, even violent ones, in which victim-directed sentencing turns out to be community-based sentencing,” he says. “Society's myth is that all victims want pure punishment. Genesee Justice has proven that when they're attended to, victims want safety and accountability and responsibility from the offender—not vengeance.”
Genesee County officials believe that the offender's first obligation is to make amends to the victim and to the community. The justice system's role is to act as a mediator between those most affected and to ensure that the case is fairly resolved.
Offenders who meet face-to-face with their victim are more likely to recognize the harm caused by their crime. These carefully planned face-to-face meetings also give offenders a chance to seek forgiveness. But, Wittman notes, it's not easy for an offender to sit next to his or her victim.
Offenders who show a strong interest in making amends are given the chance to make restitution. A plan is prepared and presented to the victim, district attorney, and defense lawyer. The plan is customized for each offender depending on the nature of the offense, the victim's recommendations, and input by interested members of the community. If the offender follows the tightly monitored plan, charges may be reduced or dropped. If not, the case will revert to the normal court process.
Mark (not his real name) was arrested for possession of a large quantity of the psychedelic drug LSD and faced a prison term of 25 years to life under New York's tough drug laws. The prosecutor agreed to put legal proceedings on hold for 21 months. During that time, Mark attended drug treatment programs, went back to school, and complied with a 9 p.m. curfew.
He also attended a meeting with the “victims” of his crime, members of his family and community who told him in clear terms their views on drug dealing.
In the end, Mark served eight months in jail, including a stint at a shock boot camp. Instead of spending 25 years or more in prison, at a cost to taxpayers of more than half a million dollars, Mark is now completing his education and looking forward to a career as a physical therapist. “I'm closer to my family now,” says Mark. “This experience made me see what I was doing to them; it gave me a chance to prove that I could straighten myself out.”
For the community: empowerment
The Genesee County justice system recognizes that the victims of a crime include not only those who are robbed by a stranger or battered by a spouse. Crimes hurt the whole community, drawing on taxpayer resources and degrading a community's sense of well-being and safety. In Genesee County, offenders often compensate the community as well as the crime victim through direct payments and community service. As part of his sentence, a man convicted of driving while intoxicated paid $200 to Mothers Against Drunk Driving; a school burglar paid $250 in reparations to a 5th grade class.
Offenders have built or repaired public facilities, prepared meals for homeless people, done accounting for the YMCA, and cut wood for a home energy assistance program. These service projects offer something to offenders as well as to the community; offenders get the chance to restore their standing in the community by making visible and needed contributions.
The success of this approach rests on the involvement of the whole community. After more than 10 years, the citizens of Genesee County have shown they are up to the challenge; 107 nonprofit agencies are involved, 90 volunteers work with crime victims, and 80 volunteer community sponsors meet weekly with offenders. One of these community sponsors, Reverend Wilmer Simmons, meets weekly at a restaurant with an offender assigned by Genesee Justice.
“Sometimes for these young people, this is the first time anyone has trusted them, the first time they could do anything right,” Simmons says. “We treat them as equals; we buy them coffee and listen to their story.”
The approach taken in Genesee County is not only compassionate, it represents a major cost savings for taxpayers. Wittman estimates it costs the county an average of $350 for each case it takes on. Without the community-based options, a majority of those convicted would be imprisoned at a cost of $14,000 to $25,000 per year. While neighboring counties are building new jails, Genessee's jail has room to spare—the county makes money housing prisoners from other jurisdictions.
Best of all is the stellar record of those who received community-based sentences; according to Wittman, only 6 percent have either failed to complete their sentence or been re-arrested.
The approach has won over county officials across the political spectrum, and neighboring counties are starting to get curious as well. “Incarceration should be used as a last resort, only after community obligations and restrictions have failed,” former Sheriff W. Douglas Call says. “Public protection is fostered by enforced community-based sanctions, [rather than] abrupt, unrestricted release from jail and all that imposes upon the general public.”
An earlier version of this article appeared in In Context #38, The Ecology of Justice.
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