Susan Herman, who served for seven years as the executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, talks about her book Parallel Justice for Victims of Crime.
The following is a transcript:
ROB WOLF: Hi, I'm Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Welcome to another New Thinking podcast. I'm here with Susan Herman who is an associate professor at Pace University, and formerly the executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime in Washington. She has been involved with, in some form or another, working with victims of crime for nearly 30 years. She recently has published a book called “Parallel Justice for Victims of Crime,” which presents an approach for integrating victims into the way we think about crime in the United States, and how we can respond to crime, how we should include victims in, as the title suggests, a parallel justice, so Susan, thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
SUSAN HERMAN: You're welcome. It's great to be here.
WOLF: Why don't we just start out with you explaining to me a little bit about your experience focusing on victims issues and how they brought you to this place where you've come up with this book and the ideas behind it?
HERMAN: Many years ago, before I went to law school, I started out as a self-defense instructor working with victims of sexual assault and rape crisis counselors. I saw firsthand what the trauma of crime can do to people, how debilitating it can be, how the reactions of people can last for a long time, and can produce more limited and more unproductive and satisfying lives in people. I started thinking about what our response to victims of crime should be, how we can respond better as a society, how we can respond as government, as community members, and as individuals. That's what Parallel Justice is all about. It's a set of principles and values that provide a framework for communal response to victims.
WOLF: I'm going to ask you a little bit more about those principles in a moment, but let me ask you how you engage in a nuanced discussion about victims in a world where there seems to be generally the sense that you have victims over on this side, and if you're doing something good for victims it means locking up as many offenders as you can, and being as punitive as you can, or if you're on the side of the offenders, you're really looking at preserving their rights. I mean, there's a whole spectrum of responses to offenders, but somehow there is not a dialog between these two camps. It's ...
HERMAN: There's very little dialog between these camps, and when there is, sometimes it's quite poisonous. It's really fear-based politics. There's this sense that if you listen to victims’ emotions, or understand their needs, that the whole process is going to become too irrational, too emotional, maybe too retributive. There's a sense that if we devoted more resources to victims, that means we're taking away resources from offenders. In my view, we have arrived at this polarized conversation because we have neglected to see a few things. We've neglected to really understand the full impact of crime and the cost to our society, the connection between victimization and drug and alcohol abuse, the connection between victimization and homelessness, poverty, poor academic performance, and it leads to, in many cases, offending behavior.
If you look at juvenile delinquency, for instance, the greatest risk factor in juvenile delinquency is not what people think. It's not drug or alcohol abuse. It's not teenage pregnancy. It's victimization. The most prominent risk factor that's recognized in the research leading to juvenile delinquency, which later leads to adult criminal behavior, is victimization. We don't address victimization, in my view, at our peril. I think victim assistance could be one of the greatest crime prevention strategies we could employ.
WOLF: I understand that one of the greatest challenges you face as a victim advocate is that so many people who are victims don't even report crimes.
HERMAN: Why would you report a crime if you think that the only thing that's going to happen has nothing to do with you? If what you need, if you're a person who's afraid, you've been beaten up in your neighborhood and you're afraid to go home, and your laptop and your cell phone have been stolen, and you can't function anymore on the job or at school, if you don't think that reporting to the police is going to address any of those problems, and all it's going to do is make you take time off to go to court, or try and find somebody, and the police have said that they don't have a lot of evidence and nothing is going to happen anyway, why report?
We have to create a process where victims feel that we care about the impact of crime. We care about what's happened to them, that we acknowledge that what's happened to them is wrong, and that they believe we're going to do everything we can to help them. We don't have that now.
WOLF: Will they get their laptop and their phone back or will they be compensated for that?
HERMAN: Who reports? You know, people have their cars stolen or damaged report, because unless they report they won't get any insurance, right?
HERMAN: There's a goody that comes from reporting.
HERMAN: I think we have to have this mindset that there has to be some response that addresses the needs of victims. Otherwise, why should they tell us about this? That might be more compensation. That might be counseling and support. It might be helping them fix the broken window that the burglar went through right away. You're actually addressing their need to be safe rather than just saying, "I see you have a broken window. That's how he got in. I'll see if I can find him."
WOLF: I'm speaking with Susan Herman who's formerly the Executive Director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. She's an Associate Director at Pace, and the author of the new book, Parallel Justice for Victims of Crime. Tell me about some of the principles that you referred to earlier?
HERMAN: One of the things that we know from research is that when you're a victim of crime, and this is really across the board, almost any kind of crime, you are more vulnerable to crime for a short period of time at least, than you were before that crime occurred. You are vulnerable to what we call “repeat victimization.” One of the principles of Parallel Justice is the safety of victims would be a high priority. That means for the police, for the prosecutors, for the courts, for healthcare people, for anyone who is responding to that victim. They would take the time and do what they could to prevent repeat victimization. For instance, instead of the first responder just determining whether there was a crime that occurred and gathering evidence, you would take the time to figure out what that victim might do to make it less likely that another crime was going to take place. Another principle is that victims would be presumed credible unless there is reason to believe otherwise. That's pretty fundamental that when someone comes to you and says, "This happened to me," that we treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve by believing them until or unless there is a reason not to, rather than starting out as skeptical, or non-believing, or trivializing, or dismissing what they say.
WOLF: Is that common? I mean, I would think that most places would formally say their policy would be to, you know, at least the police departments would say ...
HERMAN: Most people would say their formal policy ... sure, except if you look at police departments across the country who are under great pressure to have their crime statistics as low as possible, and then you talk to victims who feel that their complaint either wasn't taken, or it was downgraded, that violates that principle of parallel justice. They were not presumed credible.
WOLF: Is there a hierarchy of victims, where people who have been a victim of a violent crime versus a non-violent, or identity theft versus rape, or, I mean, obviously there's things are more severe than others. But does the system also see it that way too and treat victims differently in a way that you feel perhaps should be corrected or is not appropriate?
HERMAN: Yeah, I think over the last 30 years we've created a statutes at the state level, federal laws, thousands and thousands of victims rights, pieces of legislation that are primarily directed at victims of violent crime. Two-thirds of victims of crime in this country are victims of property crime, or non-violent crime, and they are left out of most victims rights legislation, which means we know that victims of property crime take days off from work, lose money, often have the same financial, psychological, sometimes even physical responses of violation and depression, and mental illness that victims of violent crimes do. Just imagine if you're the victim of crime on the street, somebody's knocked you down and taken your wallet, and taken ten bucks out of your wallet. You have the right to be notified of the proceedings, to know what happens to the offender, to know where he or she is in the system. You have the right to speak in court. If you are the victim of identity theft and your entire savings has been wiped out, you may not have those rights. Does that seem fair?
WOLF: Wow, no, not when you put it that way. Can you offer some examples of programs or jurisdictions that have begun to incorporate the ideas in Parallel Justice?
HERMAN: I've seen a lot of positive change. Vermont is doing a lot. Vermont has created a resource bank where there are 45 business that are providing free or discounted services to victims of crime, anything from food to massages. Things that are just nice extras, you know, "We can help you feel better," to necessities like clothing and furniture to help you set up a place that's been destroyed.
WOLF: Who coordinates that stuff?
HERMAN: The Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services and the Parallel Justice Project there, which is run out of the police department, and the Community Development Organization in town.
WOLF: That's in Burlington?
HERMAN: That's in Burlington, thank you. They're working with the Chamber of Commerce there.
WOLF: They've adopted the term “Parallel Justice?”
HERMAN: They use the term. They have a parallel justice specialist who works out of the police department, actually right next to a traditional victim advocate, and so they're very clear that they're distinct roles. One, the victim advocate, is helping you understand what the criminal justice process is like. The parallel justice specialist is helping you rebuild your life. It's saying, "What do you need? Do you need child care while you're at court? Do you need help cleaning up the crime scene? We can do that with you."
WOLF: As you have said, the idea, and as embodied in the name, Parallel Justice, really is not necessarily in any way dependent on the criminal justice response.
HERMAN: Not in any way.
WOLF: It can exist wholly apart from the ...
HERMAN: That's right. Parallel Justice really involves a separate set of responses to victims that it's not just about reforming the criminal justice process. It's saying that whenever a crime is committed, there would be a separate and distinct set of responses that flow from the government, from the community, and from individuals regardless of the status of the offender. It shouldn't matter whether we ever identify or convict an offender. That should have no impact on our decisions to help a victim of crime once we believe that they are a victim of crime. You can have a victim who really doesn't need much and you still may want to prosecute the offender, and you can have a victim who really would appreciate to be relocated, to have psychotherapy, to have someone to talk to every once in a while regardless of whether the offender is ever caught.
There's some wonderful examples of really being open to what victims need that have come out of this Vermont work. For instance, there's a woman who was sexually assaulted while she was going for her run in the park, and she didn't really want to be a part of a victims’ support group. She didn't really think she needed psychotherapy. If you asked her, "What do you want?" She said, "I want someone to run with me because I'm too afraid to run by myself at this point." That's where the Parallel Justice and the Resource Bank come in. They worked with a running shop in town to find people who would be appropriate to escort her for a while.
WOLF: Susan, how can people find out more about Parallel Justice, and where can they buy your book?
HERMAN: Oh, great questions. Here's the website, paralleljustice.org. You can certainly buy the book through that website, individual or bulk rate, or you get it on Amazon. Either one, but I hope people see this as a positive image of justice and something that everyone can take a part in implementing.
WOLF: I hope so too. Thank you. I've been speaking to Susan Herman who is formerly the executive director at the National Center for Victims of Crime in Washington, D. C. She's also an associate professor at Pace University, and she's author of the new book, “Parallel Justice for Victims of Crime.” I'm Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. To find out more about our work at the Center for Court Innovation you can visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org. Thanks for listening.