Prime Time Crime  


(Published in the Chilliwack Times week of Jan. 14, 2008)


Victims still shut out of system


  By John Martin

There's a joke that keeps getting recycled every few years that is a most appropriate commentary on these times.

A sociologist, a criminologist and a judge meet at a criminal justice conference and go out for dinner and a few drinks. They're walking back to their hotel and end up in a rough part of town. There's some commotion up ahead and they hear someone screaming. Then they notice two people running away into the night. They get a little closer and see a man lying in pain on the sidewalk. He's bleeding from multiple head wounds and his pockets have been turned inside out. Clearly, he has been robbed and viciously beaten. The judge looks at his companions and says, "Come on, hurry up. We've got to go find the people that did this and help them."

There's an awful lot more truth to this scenario than many people realize. In the 1970s we shifted the emphasis in criminal justice away from retribution, punishment and public safety, to rehabilitation. The welfare and prospects of the offender became paramount. This was reflected in all aspects of the criminal justice system, but most notably in sentencing.

In and of itself, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If we want to reduce the number of offenders and recidivists, it's incumbent on us to understand what makes them tick and what is required to change their future behaviour. Such an understanding provides us with the knowledge to address some of the conditions that ultimately contribute to criminality, beyond the offender's free will.

The problem is, the fixation on addressing the offender's needs became the be all and end all of the system. Victims of violent crime, in particular, were consigned to the dustbin and generally treated with absolute contempt by the justice system. Any time victims attempted to speak up and raise their concerns they were shouted down, ridiculed and written off as vengeful vigilantes.

The earliest organized groups representing victims were consistently denied meetings with justice officials and figuratively given the middle finger by Ottawa. This was particularly true in the early stages of the Reform Party where its members, who placed a premium on public safety, were dismissed by government and much of the major media as a lynch mob.

Over time, Members of Parliament Randy White and Chuck Cadman, and a couple others, applied embarrassing pressure on the government and forced them to adopt some moderate reforms that began to recognize the plight of victims. It soon became politically unwise to ignore victims' groups.

But while Ottawa and the media tend to be much more receptive to the needs of victims than in previous years, the justice system itself is still resistant. Giving consideration to victims' desires that justice be served is still not a principle of the sentencing process. Victim impact statements are routinely given lip service by the courts who continue to hand down sentences that humiliate and further traumatize victims.

Offenders can be found regularly laughing and high-fiving their buddies in court when given yet another conditional sentence that avoids jail time altogether. It is not uncommon for violent offenders with 20 or more convictions to be released on some laughable curfew condition and make a mocking face at their victim and his or her family who are sitting, absolutely stunned, in court.

In its continuing contempt for victims, the justice system fully deserves the public's overwhelming lack of confidence in it.

John Martin is a Criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley and can be contacted at


Prime Time Crime

Contributing 2008