Across the country, April 19-25 is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. This year’s theme is “Seek Justice | Ensure Victims’ Rights | Inspire Hope.” Criminal justice advocacy must account for the sanctity of justice and respect for victims. Right on Crime identifies support of victims as a fundamental tenet. In fact, the driver behind advocacy for evidence-based reforms that focus on rehabilitation and re-entry is proven to reduce the risk that more innocent people become a victim of crime.
How do we “seek justice” for victims? It is difficult—unless you have experienced it first-hand—to truly comprehend how crime affects a victim, particularly a violent crime. The impact extends to the victim’s family, friends, and loved ones. The human toll demands justice. However, justice must be fair, uniform, and proportional to the crime committed.
Across Louisiana, district attorney’s offices have victim coordinators who assist victims to understand their rights and navigate the process. The rights of crime victims are codified under Revised Statute 46:1844, which provides:
The right to reasonable notice and to be present and heard during all critical stages of pre- and post-conviction proceedings; The right to confer with the prosecution prior to final disposition of the case; The right to refuse to be interviewed by the accused or a representative of the accused; The right to review and comment on any presentence report; The right to a reasonably prompt conclusion of the case; The right to seek restitution; and The right to be informed upon the release from custody or the escape of the accused or the offender.
Our district attorneys seek justice, and our legislature enacts laws to ensure victims’ rights are protected. For some victims, but understandably not all, hope is found through restorative justice programs. Restorative justice is an option for victims who are interested in meeting the offender, and should be initiated only at the victim’s request.
An extraordinary example of how hope can be inspired through restorative justice is seen in Rwanda. In 2015, while in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, I stayed at a home with then-president of Wyoming Catholic College, Dr. Kevin Roberts—now Executive Director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation—his family, and Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga, a priest from Rwanda. As a Deacon, it only seemed fitting that I became Fr. Ubald’s “right hand man” and was charged with guiding him through the events and ultimately the Papal Mass.
A great task for a “country Deacon.”
Fr. Ubald survived the Rwandan genocide. Forty-five thousand of his parishioners who had sought refuge at his church parish were murdered. His mother was murdered along with 80 other members of his family. In total, over 800,000 people were murdered in the genocide. Fr. Ubald escaped the country in the middle of the night. Prior to the genocide, as a young seminarian, he had the opportunity to go anywhere he wanted after his ordination. However, he chose to go back to Rwanda to bring Christ and the message of the Gospel to his people. After the genocide, Fr. Ubald again chose to return to his home country. After much prayer, he discovered that “forgiveness is the secret of peace.” His ministry includes the effort to bring healing and forgiveness to both the victims and the perpetrators of the genocide. He created the Center of Peace, where both the victims and perpetrators are brought together—to meet and confront one another. Many people have been able to forgive and receive forgiveness. Slowly through forgiveness, peace is being experienced by both the victims and perpetrators. The country is experiencing the hand of God through forgiveness. Fr. Ubald met the perpetrator who killed his own mother. He forgave this man and paid for two of his children to go to school.
Fr. Ubald’s program was applied to an entire country and is an extraordinary—even supernatural—example of restorative justice. Many states have used restorative justice programs within the prison systems to achieve understanding and sometimes “peace” for victims of crime. Fr. Ubald and restorative-justice programs are great examples of inspiring hope for all. It is also important for victims to understand that they should never feel pressured to forgive, understand, or accept the harm that has been caused.
While the secret to peace may be forgiveness, it is a difficult road to travel.
Right on Crime’s Derek Cohen points out in his paper, Reviving Restorative Justice: A Blueprint for Texas, that:
“The adoption of restorative justice programs does not ensure that all victims will be fully made whole, nor does it offer a process that all participating offenders will benefit from. However, it does offer a proven alternative to the current system that treats victims as major entities in the criminal justice process. Properly implemented, evidence-based programs offer the opportunity for increased victim satisfaction, greater public safety, and substantial cost-savings over costly correctional sanctions.”
Hope may be achieved by providing victims with options that can assist in their recovery, and ensuring that our criminal justice system restores victims, protects the public, and reforms offenders.