Parallel justice for victims of crime

My friend Susan Herman, formerly executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, has argued for years that victims will never receive justice until their needs are addressed, regardless of whether the person who committed the crime against them is ever identified or prosecuted.  As the title of her new book puts it, we need Parallel Justice for Victims of Crime because “all victims of crime are entitled to a separate path to safety and justice, one that does not replace, but that runs parallel to, the criminal justice process.” (p. 53)

Susan and I have had many discussions about the relationship between parallel justice and restorative justice.  Some have been informal but others have been more formal.  One time, for example, those of us at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding held a “palaver” on our campus in which restorative justice advocates and victim services providers dialogued with Susan around these issues.  Another time Susan and I were part of a four-person panel sponsored by Safe Horizon at the New York City Public Library.

At that latter venue I conceded that Susan may be right:  even though restorative justice in theory gives equal attention to victims and offenders, in the real world of the present criminal justice system, offender concerns are likely to dominate.  Maybe, I said, we will need parallel systems of justice before we can achieve true restorative justice.  After all, many victim needs cannot be met by the offender and/or the community alone.

At the palaver here at EMU, one model suggested was described as a ladder:  parallel systems of justice for victims and offenders with “rungs” that represent pathways back and forth between them at various stages.  Restorative justice programs might operate in these pathways.

Susan acknowledges value in restorative justice programs but sees them as affecting a tiny minority of victims.  Her words long ago have stuck with me:  “I’ll believe restorative justice is victim-centered when it’s available whether or not an offender is identified, whether or not the offender acknowledges responsibility.”  So if I correctly understand her recent comments to me (while sharing the biggest piece of carrot cake either of us had ever faced), she sees a place for restorative justice as an option but, in her words to me, “not every victim can take advantage of it, and even for those who do, it has limited – very important, but limited – value.”

This is true if we see restorative justice as primarily victim-offender encounter programs. However, my preference is to view restorative justice as something much broader and deeper:  as an overall philosophy of justice.

It may well be that even restorative justice would require parallel systems.  However, to be coherent as an overall system of justice, there must be a unifying concept and set of principles guiding both sides.  The criminal justice concept, with its focus on lawbreaking and providing “deserved” sanctions, cannot adequately incorporate the victim side.  With that approach we are forever stuck between the “crime control” and “due process” polices (See “Three justice orientations” blog entry).  Restorative justice, however, could provide a way out of this dichotomy, guiding both tracks.  It need not be limited to the rungs or pathways between the two sides of the ladder.

From a restorative justice perspective, justice should essentially focus on repairing harm, preferring inclusive and collaborative processes to adversarial ones.  If justice would emphasize repairing harm, then, victims would play an integral role; their voices would be heard, they would be given options, their needs would be taken into account.  Although I know there can be great value in various forms of victim offender encounter, I am increasingly convinced that the ultimate importance of restorative justice is as this overall philosophy, not specific practices.

In the meantime, regardless of whether the existing system becomes more victim-sensitive or restorative, Susan provides a place to start.  Parallel Justice suggests where we can begin, concretely, in our communities.  I recommend it.

(Susan Herman is an associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice, Pace University.  Her website is