Justice for All

16 years ago next week, the nation watched as media reported the tragic event known as the Columbine Shooting. Two teenagers' violent plan resulted in the terrifying death of 13 students and school staff and the injuries of 23 others.

Two individuals broke several laws that day. But crime is obviously not just about broken laws. Crime is also about shattered lives and fractured communities. Yet our criminal justice system has historically been overly focused on the system itself instead of how it can help provide justice for those harmed by crime.

Next week is National Crime Victims' Rights Week. This is a time of awareness building -- a time to acknowledge how men, women and children have been harmed by crimes, and a time to examine how we can retool our criminal justice system to provide a more just experience for all parties affected -- both those responsible and harmed, as well as the communities in which they live.

Each year, millions of Americans are personally affected by crime. For many, their lives are forever changed; they can struggle in many ways -- financially, emotionally and physically. Of the total number of people who report being a victim of a violent crime, 25 percent suffer an injury. And less than 3 percent ever receive monetary assistance from victim compensation funds for costs like medical expenses, mental health counseling, lost wages and funerals. Unfortunately, those who do get compensated often aren't compensated enough.

But perhaps even more alarming is the estimate that more than half of all violent crimes go unreported to the police. Many people harmed by crime remain in the shadows, afraid to come forward with their stories for a myriad of reasons -- self-blame, shame, fear of judgment, fear of the responsible party's power.

At Prison Fellowship, the nation's largest outreach to those affected by crime, we advocate for reform based on the principles of restorative justice that give victims a voice and the opportunity to participate in the justice process. As a faith-based organization, we believe that all people are God's creation and have inherent dignity. This means that everyone should receive respect, so our approach refocuses the foundation of our justice system on the worth of people impacted by crime and incarceration. Our framework prioritizes victim participation, responsible party accountability and community involvement.

For victims, in order for justice to be fully served, the process must promote these restorative justice values:

1. The harmed party and their personal information must be protected to prevent further harm.
2. They must receive the assistance they need, such as emergency services or counseling.
3. They must also receive validation that what happened to them was unjust.
4. Those harmed by crime must be given information about the legal process, their rights and how to exercise them.
5. The harmed party must receive restitution from the responsible party. Sometimes this comes in a financial form. We also advocate for access to restorative justice programs that give victims of crime the opportunity to develop an individualized restitution plan with the person who has harmed them. Through this process, victims can ask questions about the crime and determine what accountability for the responsible party should look like.
6. The victim must get the chance to participate in the legal process. For example, if they would like to, they may give an impact statement, sentencing recommendations or create an individualized restitution plan as described above.

Justice is challenging. Every person and situation is unique, making it difficult to quantify the harm a crime may cause. But that should never be an excuse to carry out justice poorly. And although crime's impact often leaves damage that can never be fully restored, administrators of justice should faithfully serve harmed parties with these six values in mind -- promulgating their rights and providing assistance during and after the legal process so that lives can be put on the path to restoration and communities can flourish.