The Forgotten Victims of Crime

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It is a fact - the Harper government is obsessed with crime and punishment.

Most recently the Conservatives’ criminal justice agenda has been occupied with legislation that purportedly assists victims.

Why purportedly - because much of this legislation is little more than window dressing.

Take for example bill C-32 - the Victims’ Bill of Rights.  The Conservatives contended that legislation addressing victims’ rights was necessary because – as Harper said - "For too long, the voices of victims have been silenced, while the system coddled criminals."

Let’s tone down the rhetoric for a moment.  As a starting point the contention that victims have been silenced is simply untrue.  There are many sections in the Criminal Code that apply to victims and already confer many of the ‘rights’ contained in the new legislation.

To the extent that The Victims’ Bill of Rights addresses and modestly expands these pre-existing measures there can be little complainant - victims deserve to be treated with dignity and to have access to information about matters that affect them.

Of course the Conservatives can’t help themselves - buried deep within the new bill is an amendment to the Criminal Code - a poison pill - that would allow anonymous evidence to be introduced in court, limit disclosure of information to an accused, and curtail cross-examination.

The government's rhetoric about our justice system failing victims is dangerous.  Not only does the reality that plays out in our courts not match the rhetoric, but misrepresentations about our justice system make an honest discussion about the situation of victims impossible.

One needs to look no further than the recent allegations against Jian Ghomeshi to illustrate the danger of misleading information.

Following the Ghomeshi affair countless articles have distorted the reality about sexual assault prosecutions.  The recent popular discourse makes it appear that victims of sexual assault are routinely attacked, and commonly face intrusive questions about their past sexual histories.

This is all largely untrue - there is quite simply no such thing as ‘whacking’ the complainant - not anymore.  

The tragedy of this intellectually dishonest discourse is addressed succinctly by Toronto lawyer Sean Robchaud’s excellent article, Sexual assault trials in Canada: assumptions and misinformation clarified:

In my view, many of the factors mentioned in [recent media reports] grossly overstate and oversimplify what happens in a sexual assault trial.  Ironically, this may actually foster reluctance in reporting by a victim in fear that the litany of things presented by Ms. Garosinno will inevitably happen to them. 

The solution lies not in generating fear, but confidence in victims that the justice system will and does adequately protect them while at the same time attempting to strike a balance with the accuseds’ rights to defend themselves against allegations they may claim as false.

Lost in this recent debate is one forgotten group of victims - the families of offenders.

The families of offenders experience the devastating shock, trauma, shame and stigma of knowing a family member has caused harm to others.

Jane Smith[1] founder of MOMS Ottawa - a support group for mothers whose family have come into conflict with the law - describes the situation an offender's family can find themselves in:

Imagine you are a family member of one who has been arrested. You are now a social pariah.

In many instances, media accounts drag family members (who have done nothing wrong) into their salacious accounts of events. There is no regard for their privacy, for their need to grieve as their world has been turned upside down.

It is so easy to pass judgment from a position of righteous indignation on the sidelines.

Many of these families now have few support avenues. Friends, colleagues, even some family members may turn their backs - and judge. Your neighbors, once friends, may judge you. Families often hide what has happened from relatives, friends and co-workers, for fear of being judged. They often suffer in silence.

These victims need support too - they are currently getting none from the federal government.  

The recent deluge of misinformation about victims and the justice system is misplaced.

Tragically the recent dialogue is also incomplete.  

The families of those who have come into conflict with the law play an essential role in the reintegration and rehabilitation of offenders - a role that ultimately serves to protect the public and make our communities safer - they also deserve support.

[1] Jane Smith is a pseudonym to protect the identities of the author's loved ones. MOMS Ottawa is an open support group for mothers whose sons/daughters have come into conflict with the law. They meet monthly to support each other and educate themselves on the justice/corrections system. They also advocate for awareness of the impact of incarceration on the families of loved ones. You can find out more at www.momsottawa.com