It was refreshing to read the Chief Justice’s recent address on criminal justice and I commend her for her courage in making her views known. As someone with an interest in youth justice matters, I was encouraged by the discussion on early intervention. There were two issues in particular which resonated with me, though, and to which I would like to add my thoughts here. The first is the role of the victim in the criminal justice system. The rights and needs of victims of crime have rightfully begun to be acknowledged in recent years, and as the Chief Justice emphasised, there is ‘no question of going back to the days when victims were largely irrelevant in criminal proceedings’. Like the Chief Justice, however, I have concern about the changing role of the victim in criminal proceedings. A powerful narrative in the victims’ rights movement is that of the modern legal system stealing conflicts from victims. There are calls for victims to be given increased input into prosecutorial, sentencing and parole decisions. What is often forgotten in calls for increased victim input is the flip side of this coin. What about a victim that doesn’t want the offender to go to prison even though public safety is at risk? What if an offender puts pressure on the victim to drop the charges? It must be remembered that the vast majority of offending occurs within the nexus of family, community and neighbourhood. As Andrew Ashworth argues (‘Responsibilities, Rights and Restorative Justice’ (2002) 42 British Journal of Criminology 578), ‘the victim’s legitimate interest is in compensation and/or reparation from the offender, and not in the form or quantum of the offender’s punishment’. A sentence handed down to an offender can never be an appraisal of the victim’s loss, nor is it designed to be. To misrepresent the sentencing process thus, is to raise false hopes and to re-victimise victims of crime and their families. We must concentrate on improving direct assistance and support to victims of crime. Secondly, I wholeheartedly endorse the Chief Justice’s call for community education about the criminal justice system. People are entitled to their opinions, and undoubtedly there is a section of the public who is in favour of punitiveness. That is their right. I am convinced, however, that there is a lack of understanding on the part of the public about the criminal justice system, fuelled by lurid crime reports, and a lack of balance in media reporting. The public needs to have access to reliable information about the justice system. The Ministry of Justice and the Department of Corrections produce some excellent reports and statistics. Why are these not presented in a more user friendly manner? Why don’t the authors speak up when their statistics are misrepresented in the media? The Chief Justice notes that ‘…leadership of the debate around penal policy passed from officials and professionals working in the field to advocates for victims and safer communities’. The view of those working in the criminal justice field, but particularly the views of lawyers, judges and academics, are frequently dismissed as self-serving. I am reminded of the recent furore in my home country where 133 criminal practitioners wrote a letter to the Irish Times criticising proposed legislation (Irish Times, 8/7/2009). Vitriolic attacks on the letter writers followed, mainly accusing them of being concerned more with their ‘exorbitant’ fees and with the rights of criminals, rather than the public interest. I ask the question, if 133 of the country’s medical practitioners wrote a letter criticising a new cancer treatment, would they be attacked on the basis that they were money-hungry, or would it indicate that there were some issues that warranted further investigation? Similarly, comments on the New Zealand Herald website relating to the Chief Justice’s speech criticise her for being out of touch with realities of crime. Dame Elias has 40 years experience in the law and is the country’s top judge. If the country’s top cancer specialist spoke out about cancer treatment, would we listen? Let’s have some balanced reporting on criminal justice for a change. Nessa Lynch, Lecturer LINKS: - http://www.courtsofnz.govt.nz/speechpapers/Shirley%20Smith%202009%20lecture-Blameless%20Babes-9%20July%202009.pdf


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