James McCulloch is the chief executive of Manaaki Tāngata | Victim Support.
In getting “tough on crime” let’s not forget about the victims.
That might seem an odd statement to make. After all, won’t a “tough on crime” approach be exactly what victims of crime want?
Well, that’s partly true, and it was certainly a key issue in many election discussions and policy debates.
And our new Government has made sure that it features strongly in its recently released 100-day plan, too.
So, what’s the problem, you might ask? To understand that, we need to look a bit deeper – beyond the headlines – and to the work that Victim Support and other agencies have been doing across New Zealand for decades, in wrapping care around people affected by crime.
And that’s actually more of us than you might think.
When I get the opportunity to share the work of Victim Support at community gatherings, I start with a simple question: have you been a victim of crime, or do you know someone who has?
Every hand rises, every time. In our wonderfully interconnected country, this universal experience reveals an unfortunate reality: Crime affects us all, either directly or through someone we care about.
So when a new government promises to get tough on crime, it’s tempting to leave victims’ issues to the policymakers, police, or courtrooms. Job done.
But the show of hands I see from Kaitaia to Bluff suggests otherwise. Crime victims are our whānau, our friends, our neighbours and colleagues. They’re the dairy owner on the corner, the teen on the rugby field, or your grandmother and her bridge friends.
Yet, the real stories of these victims remain untold. Incredibly, as only 19% of crime reported in New Zealand, the majority of victims never see the inside of a courtroom. And many don’t want to.
The reasons for not reporting crime range from believing the crime is too trivial to report, to not trusting that anything can be done about it, to feeling too ashamed.
Getting tough on crime doesn’t fully address the reasons people don’t report crime. Nor is it the complete solution for those who do report it.
Our research at Victim Support revealed that 59% of serious crime victims had no faith in the justice system, and 68% felt justice had not been served in their case, despite most resulting in a guilty verdict and imprisonment.
While a guilty verdict and a harsh sentence are undoubtedly important to some victims, research repeatedly shows this isn't always what matters most. Victims’ justice needs include support, information, participation, voice, validation, and respect.
Tony, a university student and sexual violence survivor, approached me after one of my talks recently. “If so many people have been a victim or know a victim,” he asked, “how come society doesn’t know how to support us?”
Tony’s parents struggled to believe him, his lecturers scolded him for his falling grades, his boss fired him for not showing up to work, and his GP gave him sleeping pills, but never suggested he see a counsellor.
Tony’s offender was behind bars, but he didn’t feel a sense of justice. “It’s almost like people think now that the trial’s over, I’ve got closure and it’s all behind me.”
But for Tony, being let down by the people who should have understood him has left a deep sense of pain and injustice. “It was like they thought it was between me and the justice system and wasn’t anything to do with them,” he told me. “I just wanted to feel heard and acknowledged and believed, but I felt like I didn’t matter.”
The answer to Tony’s question, I believe, lies in a simple paradox: We may have a personal connection to being a crime victim, yet we think it’s someone else’s responsibility to help them. Or it simply feels too hard and uncomfortable.
Support, information, participation, voice, validation, and respect: these justice needs extend well beyond the courtroom. All too often these needs are only met by the victim reaching out to Victim Support or the many other amazing community-based organisations responding where, when, and how they can.
Make no mistake, this is an essential support service in any society, and we all need to be resourced to meet a growing and often overwhelming need. But, this is a responsibility we all share in the workplace, over a coffee, on the sports field or in the home.
The next time you learn that your neighbour’s been burgled, your workmate’s been assaulted, or a friend is trying to escape an abusive relationship, stop and think about which of these needs you can meet.
If you’re an employer, you could offer them some time off to deal with the fallout. If you’re a friend, you can acknowledge their struggle. If you’re a family member, listen without judgement. Tell them you believe them.
Let victims know they’re entitled to free, 24/7 help from Victim Support – even if they don’t report the crime. Maybe your support will be the catalyst that helps a victim feel safe enough to do so.
“Tough on crime” will continue to dominate the political discourse. But assuming it’s the answer to all victims’ needs will only prolong justice and healing for victims like Tony and the majority who never enter the courtroom.
I like to imagine a future where not everyone raises their hand when asked about being a victim or knowing one. But until that day, if we raise our hand, it’s also time to raise our awareness that we, as members of society, can also make a difference to victims.
This article was published to The Post 8/12/2023.
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