Susan Miller is a professor of criminal justice at the University of Delaware whose book, After the Crime, was published in April. The book explores the process of allowing victims of violent crimes with their offenders and how it can affect their perspectives post-conviction and during the coping process.
How did you become interested in writing After the Crime?
During my academic career I’ve been always interested in victim’s rights and those kinds of issues related to victim’s recovery.
I was teaching a class on that subject and we bring in guest speakers and one of my students recommended that I bring in a woman whose daughter who had been murdered and rather than dwelling on that, she ended up becoming an activist and starting a program in Del. where victims of violent crimes could have dialogue with their offenders in prison.I hadn’t really thought about restorative just from that perspective, because its often seen as very problematic for victims of very serious interpersonal crimes such as domestic violence and rape because the power and balance of their crimes are against their victims.
So I was really curious about it and I ended up wanting to interview all the victims and see if this face to face dialogue helped them in their healing and how it helped them. And all of the victims encouraged me to talk to their offenders.
This sort of led me down the path to explore restorative justice in ways that I really hadn’t imagined and that’s what sort of planted the seeds of this book.
How does using this method of dialogue, and restorative justice in general, benefit the victim in contrast to more a more traditional model of the justice system?
The victims in these cases are usually represented by the prosecutor. The victims in the traditional criminal justice system are used in sort of a symbolic role and it often leaves them feeling very hollow as if they didn’t participate and that nobody took them that seriously and they didn’t ask them what they would need to heal.
They end up with a lot of questions that only the offender can answer and by state statute they’re not allowed to have any contact, so the victim is often left not understanding about the crime or understanding what is happening with the offender behind bars. Is the offender getting changing at all for the better or is the offender getting more resentful getting more resentful and may retaliate and the victim is thinking, “do I have to move?” They might not know if the offender was a stranger to them or was stalking them, or anything like that.
What they’re able to do in this dialogue, is to get these pieces of the puzzle answered, the trials that didn’t come up during the trial or the plea bargain. They can find out whether or not they need to fear the offender or whether or not the offender has used his or her their time productively.
They can find out, the rape victims in particular, whether they blanked out or they didn’t remember because the trauma was so high. Sometimes they are able to use process to get photos of the offender because they don’t remember what the offender looks like, so they are afraid of everyone and this way they can put a face to the offender.
I think that what happens with this dialogue that’s so powerful, is that they really get their questions answered and they really get to say this is how your crime affected me in the short term or the long term. In the formal criminal justice system this is happening when they’re still in a traumatic kind of state and their grieving and they don’t really know what the long term impact is going to be. They can tell the offender, “this is what your behavior did and what it did to our lives,” and let the offender take some responsibility for it.
How do people become involved with organizations like Hearing Victim’s Voices, whose program you looked in your book, and how did you encounter both the victims and offenders while you wrote the book?
The victim has to hear about the program through victim services or a government program or a public service announcement. If they’re ready to make the phone call and they want to be involved with it, then they’re probably ready for it—no one’s doing it for them.
The victims call the program and ask if they participate and they the process is entailed and if they still want to do it, the program folks meet with the offender and see if the offender is also willing to undergo the process.
I had access to interviewing the victims and the offenders, so I went to all the prisons in Delaware and saw all the offenders. I got to watch the videos of their dialogue—no one else is present because it is between the victim and the offender and the facilitator, they don’t let researchers be present.
With permission I got their case notes and homework assignments because they work at least six motnts, up to a year with the facilitator before they meet face to face, and they’re well prepared and have a separate idea of what they want with the program and have an idea of what they want to get out of the program and what they want to tell the victim or tell the offender.
What I did was talk to them about what they though the advantages and disadvantages were or what the benefits were and then I followed up about a year to a year and a half later to see if they still felt the same about the program and they did.
How does this program affect or benefit the offender?
I think with many offenders, not just the ones in this book, they are often angry or they have substance abuse issues when they’re young and they don’t really think that the victim is a person and they don’t really understand the consequences of their behavior.
It usually takes about three years for victim sensitivity programs in prison to help inmates develop empathy for their victims. Initially, they’re probably pissed off—excuse my language—that they were arrested and that they were caught and they’re not really thinking about other people.
All the people that I interviewed, it had been quite some time since their arrest, and they had a lot of time reflect on their lives and come to terms to terms with what they did. They all initially said , except for the drunk driving and homicide, that they really didn’t really think that it would have such an impact on the victim’s life because it was an opportunistic crime or they were pissed off or high.
What kind of societal gains, do you believe, can be reached with restorative justice? Should it be employed more often in the justice system at large?
I think that with the proper protection and safety measures in place, they could be implemented in larger scales and number of people. I think there are huge benefits for the victim, but for the offenders to understand what they’re doing, and most offenders are going to be released, 97 to 98 percent are going to be released into the general population . So everyone in society rehab has an invested interest in them being law abiding, and trying to change their behavior into more law abiding lives.
Most victims initially are glad the offender was punished, but they’re not interested in revenge or vindictive. Over time, they realize just because the offender was locked up, that it didn’t make them feel any better.
One of the offenders, a rapist, wrote a letter to every member of the victim’s family that was affected by the rape, apologizing for everything. He also wrote a letter for her to juvenile centers at a juvenile facility, telling them that if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to end up like me.
I think there’s a lot of good lessons that have been learned, even looking at this smaller program that can extend to larger programs as long as there are safety precautions.
Could this particular program be used with gender-related crimes, such as spousal abuse or similar crimes? What obstacles might stand in the way of doing that?
I think that particular obstacle is likely to occur after arrest, before conviction, and not in these particular programs I looked at. But I think those are still really big concerns, not that we can’t overcome them.
The concern is that he could try to exert some kind of power or intimidation and the people in the room might not even be aware of it because there has been a history of ways to use glances or looks to intimidate a victim.
The victims of domestic violence who have participated post-conviction, they’ve been away from the abuser and are out of that kind of relationship and they’ve reclaimed their power and they’re more empowered by this program. They feel safer because it’s not so close to the offense.
I think that there’s a possibility that with gender-violence crime, this program could be used or a restorative justice program could be used earlier on, but there has to be a person in the room and in the program who are really well-trained in child-sexual abuse or battering and partner violence so they can really understand how the dynamics will play out.
Victim’s Voices Heard is a non-profit organization, participated in Susan’s research. They assist in helping victims explore dialogue with those who committed a violent offense against them. Visit their website for more details.