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November 2, 2015

"Sentencing Reforms Need Voices From Victims: Amid the bipartisan effort to fix a broken criminal justice system, a key perspective is missing."

The title of this post is the full headline of this notable National Law Journal op-ed authored by Mary Leary. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

The Senate Judiciary Committee last month advanced, on a bipartisan basis, the historic Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015.  This act has been described as the most significant criminal justice reform in decades.  It proposes to drastically alter the sentences of thousands of criminals, recalibrating the entire structure of our criminal justice system.

While the Judiciary Committee's recent move is good news for sentencing reform, the news about the process of this bill is more mixed. It is critical that different stakeholders with distinct perspectives weigh in on this landmark legislation before it is passed.  Yet, guess how many crime victims organizations were called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee?  Zero....

As evidenced by President Barack Obama's recent meetings with the Major Cities Chiefs of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, some policymakers understand that, to achieve legitimacy, the reforms need to be more than "bipartisan."  They must be a product of dialogue with all stakeholders, not just offenders' organizations.

Yet, apparently no one in the Senate thought it appropriate to hear what victims have to say about criminal justice reform.  Last year, about 1.17 million violent crimes and nearly 8.3 million property crimes were reported to law enforcement.  The victims of that criminal activity are the people who bear the direct and secondary harm.

That is not all. It is not just that victims were not included as witnesses; they were barely even mentioned.  A review of the written testimony of all nine witnesses indicates that the word "victim" or any derivative thereof was used a mere nine times....

And if victim groups have concerns, would not the bill become stronger if they were considered and perhaps included in its drafting?  Although prosecutorial figures did testify, it is a mistake to assume they speak for victims.  Indeed, that is how it should be, as the prosecutor's role is to represent the entire community and do justice, not to act as a victim's personal attorney.

A functioning criminal justice system must have legitimacy and a reformed fair sentencing scheme advances that goal.  But a criminal justice system loses some legitimacy if it does not hear the voice of a major stakeholder — the victims.

The president and Congress need to reach out to victims. The president has gone all the way to Oklahoma to meet with prisoners. Perhaps he should take a walk in Washington and meet with one of the victims of the over 40,000 crimes that occurred there in 2014 or speak to the families affected by a homicide rate that has increased over 47 percent since last year.

Similarly, in 2004, Congress passed the Crime Victims Rights Act. This act afforded victims the right to be "reasonably heard" at public court proceedings.  This same Congress should recognize that right in this context and allow victims to be "reasonably heard" regarding this major legislation.  Not only is it reasonable to listen to crime victims, but it is necessary for any criminal justice reform to be legitimate.

November 2, 2015 at 03:27 PM | Permalink

Comments

Notifying victims or organizations representing them is like not having Pardons ran thru the Justice dept. its not going to happen, its against there basic theirys.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Nov 2, 2015 5:55:04 PM

The lawyers forgot the appearance of piety. The movement is not even about helping the client. It is about employment of lawyers. It is morally reprehensible in its stealth.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 2, 2015 6:30:23 PM

Given how harsh current sentencing laws are, and how limited the reform measures are, the "nobody's considering the victim" argument falls on deaf ears, at least my deaf ears. I think that to date, victims have been the only ones heard in federal sentencing, at least judging by how harsh it has become in the last few decades.

Posted by: Anonymous | Nov 3, 2015 12:11:34 AM

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