How can we stop victimizing the victim?
According to federal statistics, 6 million violent crimes were committed in the United States last year, and there could be millions more that go unreported.
These alarming figures, together with reports of the brutal nature of many of these offenses, have rallied concern for the victim. Twice casualties, victims not only sustain bodily injury, a death in the family, or financial loss as a result of the crime; they may later have to suffer the indignities, legal costs, stress, and frustration of the judicial process.
Recently, judges from all 50 states met with government officials and crime victims at the National Judicial College in Reno, Nev., to make recommendations to the nation's courts on help for the victims of crime. The Reno group wants to improve judicial services for victims, ensure their protection from harm, and even involve them in deliberations over bail, pleas, and sentencing. Some states have already made significant headway in this direction. Others are just beginning to consider the problem.
The Reno meeting comes on the heels of an important effort to aid victims by President Reagan's Task Force on Violent Crime; a raft of bills to stem crime are being introduced in Congress. These range from raising the drinking age to 20 to toughening federal law on bail, plea bargaining, and sentencing.
Added to the administration's initiative are efforts by such grass-roots groups as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Protect the Innocent, Society's League Against Molestation (SLAM), and the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA). These organizations persistently and effectively lobby state legislators for mandatory sentencing of perpetrators of violent crime and expanded social and financial aid to victims.
Helping victims of crime is all to the good - but not enough. Even better would be to eliminate the victim category altogether, or at least diminish its size.
MADD founder Candy Lightner, the Texas housewife who gained national notice and a presidential citation for her campaign against drunken driving, says alcohol-related offenses have dropped by more than 11 percent in states that have taken a hard line. Now there is less reckless driving under the influence, along with fewer fatalities, and therefore not so many victims. Ms. Lightner's efforts are to be applauded.
We might be tempted to think the answer is to take all offenders or potential offenders out of circulation. Then we wouldn't have any victims.
But obviously, this isn't the way a democratic society works. You don't blow up the house to get rid of termites, and you don't suspend the legal liberties of some to obtain justice for others.
What do you do?
You put things into balance. In a formal statement, the judges gathered in Reno pledged, ''. . . our goal is not to reduce the rights guaranteed defendants but rather to assure the rights of victims and witnesses.''
Groups at the New Right political extreme would like to convince us that, in order to help victims, the constitutional guarantees of rights for the accused must be lessened. These groups want to limit the power of the judiciary, mandate capital punishment for certain crimes, and generally strip away many protections from the Bill of Rights.
It's true that in some cases, the pendulum may have swung too far toward protecting the offender. For instance, there may be good reasons for limiting the use of the insanity defense in criminal trials or modifying the so-called exclusionary rule, which bans from the courtroom evidence improperly gathered by police. Both these moves are being pushed hard by the Reagan administration and conservative groups.
The aim, however, should be to bring the system back into balance: to make the criminal-justice system more effective, while still protecting the rights of the individual.
Let's not distort the system. Curtailment of individual rights will make for more victims - not fewer. Witness the Soviet Union, Iran, and other nations where personal liberties are limited.
We know a young man who is teaching this year (under a US government program) at a small university in Communist China. He says that crime at colleges there is almost nonexistent. Doors are left unlocked. Streets are safe for walking day and night. What is the deterrent? Perpetrators of crime - even of bicycle theft - simply disappear from the community. Seldom is there word of an investigation or trial. There are strong suspicions that they have been banished.
Are we willing to pay this price for protection from crime? Obviously, there is always some danger that innocent defendants will be punished, or even eliminated, along with the guilty. In a society where justice and individual rights are highly valued, this kind of solution is far worse than the problem. We would all become potential victims - of government oppression.
The rule of law, the strict adherence to principle, must be accompanied by compassion. That's the kind of justice that works in the long run and ensures a peaceful and productive society.