Few things are as intimate as a violent crime. While the global village climbs into beds, backseats, and bathroom stalls with faces they won’t remember a month later, not so with crime. Crime always leaves a mark – usually marrow deep. And if that comes as old news to those on the receiving end of unsolicited violence, there is another truth that gets less press. When it comes to a visit from violence, the one on who ends up on the bottom isn’t always the only victim.
As part of its new Safe Streets and Communities Act, the federal government recently broadened its definition of crime victims. Besides the actual hands-on victims (living or dead) – as well as those who are the spouses, live-in girl/boy friends, children, step-children, parents, step-parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, or cousins of hands on victims – the law now recognizes “anyone who has custody of, or is responsible for, the dependents” of a hands-on victim as a victim. With 370,000 violent crimes (not to mention all the unreported ones) in Canada last year alone, that’s a lot of injured parties. Makes you wonder what sort of support that Safe Streets – the centre pillar in the government’s new omnibus crime bill – now offers these poor folks.
Strangely, The Safe Streets and Communities Act has nothing to do with either streets or communities. Neither does it address the missing joie de vivre in lives of those who have been ravaged by violent crime. What it does do is make changes to the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA) – the twenty-year-old legislation governing day-to-day life in the Big House. And for more than a decade, the CCRA has also granted certain rights to the victims of known criminals. Care to know which human warehouse your daughter’s rapist is housed in? The CCRA says you can. Interested in whether the guy (or gal) who drove under the influence and over your now deceased husband is playing nice with the guards and keeping his cell clean? Corrections Canada will drop you an email. And if you would like to know when the knife-wielding crack head who mutilated your aged parents during his last home invasion, is being transferred to minimum security… well, victims have the legal right to that information too.
But nowhere does the dubious door prize of official victim-hood become more garish than at a hearing of the Parole Board of Canada. While the PBC has long granted victims access to – and the right to read a statement at – the parole hearings of those who caused them harm, The Safe Streets and Communities Act now makes that law. If that sounds like a reward, then you’ve probably never been to a parole hearing. Between 2004 and 2010, I attended almost fifty of them as an assistant to other prisoners. In at least a dozen of those cases, victims were in the room – and some even read statements. The experience was an exercise in misery.
First there’s the room. For safety’s sake, victims are seated last. When they arrive, they sit in the back (along with any inquisitive media that may be present), behind the prisoner and any family members or witnesses he may have invited. If everybody does their job, the only face the victim will ever see are those of the Parole Board members. This questionable policy is in place to allegedly protect the privacy of the victim(s) – as if that hasn’t already been surrendered. Then, either at the beginning or end of the hearing, the Board grants the victim an opportunity to read a prepared statement that has already been shared with the prisoner and his counsel. This mandatory sharing is part of something called disclosure – an age-old pillar of Commonwealth Law guaranteeing the accused the right to now the fullness of the case against him. It allows the prisoner’s legal team time to dissect your statement and respond with counter arguments. And if your statement mentions anything that was not accepted in the original court trial, you can trust that there will be counterarguments.
One time I attended a parole hearing as an assistant to a man who had been convicted of murder, thirty-one years prior. In attendance was the victim’s daughter, who was still in her mother’s belly the night her father was killed. In a written statement that she read into the record, she alleged that besides the murder of her father, the offender had also sexually molested her grandmother during the attack. Did it happen? Don’t ask me. I wasn’t there. What I do know is that nowhere in the three-decade-old court record was there a statement from the grandmother alleging such an atrocity. Neither did the police see fit to lay a criminal charge. The inmate was livid. From his perspective, murdering a full-grown man in the midst of a drunken tussle is one thing; stopping to jump on grandma along the way was a whole different kettle of horror. Unfortunately, the allegation turned the rest of the parole hearing into a he-said-she-said about what didn’t happen that night in 1978. What the victim didn’t hear much about was the deep sorrow that a fifty-four-year-old grandfather still held for something he did in a drunken stupor as a twenty-three-year old punk. Nor was much time spent exploring the Everest-sized changes he had made in his life during all that time behind bars. But for me, the greatest indignity of the whole circus was when this courageous woman was permitted to read her victim impact statement. If her tears were as heavy as the sobs that accompanied them, then the carpeted room around her must have been flooded. Not that the prisoner I sat next to will ever know. The entirety of the woman’s sorrow-filled statement was read to the back of our heads
In prison, as almost every other venue in life, a good decision makes itself. That day was no exception. The fellow I was assisting had already spent the best years of his life behind bars. For many years he had done everything right; treatment programs to address violence, substance abuse, depression – the works. He was now a sober and practicing Christian, ten years from an old-age pension check. Sleep apnea, arthritis, and a heart condition made him a severely diminished physical threat to anyone. A solid release plant that included continued psychological care, employment, and a stint in a high-security halfway house, well addressed his risk to public safety. The parole board granted his release. What we’ll never know is how the victim’s daughter felt about that – during her three hour return flight to Saskatchewan.
It’s hard not to become cynical in a society where the incidents of reported crime shrink daily, while the numbers of reported victims increase. Neither is it easy to keep my balance on this uber-sensitive topic while monolithic corporations and political megalomaniacs – in their rapacious grasps at global dominance – accessorize their team’s logo with the blood of real victims. But I think I’ve found a way to outrun the propaganda.
I recently watched a DVD called Healing Rivers, where a member of Canada’s First Nations was interviewed. He told a story about a young man from his reserve who had vandalized the wooden fence of a neighbour. In accordance with local custom, they community convened a “circle hearing’ to address the matter. Anyone who felt they had been affected by this crime was invited to attend, along with the accused, and community leaders. After an opening prayer by a local Elder, everyone in the circle took turns addressing the 15-year-old accused and expressing the way his actions had hurt them. But also in attendance was a member of the community that sat beside the boy to support him through the process. When all the victims had been heard, and their pain acknowledged, the boy’s helper stood and addressed the crowd.
After acknowledging the suffering the boy had caused, she asked the community some thought provoking questions. How many in the room were aware that the boy lived in a house that was filled with adult substance abuse? How many knew that most nights, the boy went hungry because there was no food in the fridge – not that he would know how to cook it if there was. How many had seen this young man wandering the streets of the reservation after dark, alone, shiftless, under the influence? How many had ever invited him in for a meal, or to watch a DVD, to eat some popcorn with the family? The silent responses of those in attendance told as much about being a victim as all the words that preceded them.
Just as globalization has forced us to look at the role we play in unethical labour practices, each of us needs to open our mental borders to the refugees of crime. It’s time for a global free trade in empathy. In a world where dead Syrian babies can be stacked across your 64-inch wide screen in full 3D flavor, spitting hairs over who the victims are is just bad form. And when the single-parent three doors down has her car stolen and can’t get to work on time—or get groceries for her kids – then we all need to be victims. Embracing the act that when one hurts, we all do, is not an attack on the legitimacy of those for whom the hurts run deepest. It’s a way to harness our claim to humanity – and finally have a grown- up discussion about crime. Anything else just feels like playing the victim.