What is a victim?
A victim is someone who has suffered a loss, possibly having been harmed as a result of some accident, crime or other action. The loss they suffer may be physical, through some external injury to the body. The loss may also be mental or intellectual, perhaps through bullying or other verbal attack, or through a loss of reputation. Finally, victimhood may come from financial harm, such as through stealing, destruction of property, or a stock market crash. In common, a victim is “one who has no choice”.
All people are ‘victims’ to some degree, as we all have some exposure, whether limited or great, to grief and loss.
The misfortunes or poor treatment of victims can cause them to feel helpless, and isolated, and they grieve for their harm and the life they once led. Some may move on from their experiences, finding solace in hard work, individual betterment, or even spirituality and religion. Others may become depressed, obsess over their damaged lifestyle, or develop a victim mentality. The scars, physical or otherwise, may never fully heal; they bear the burden of their victimhood for the rest of their lives.
In many cases, the severity of the harm or injury may cause flow-on effects to a person’s family and wider society, who must learn to cope with the change and assist in the victim’s attempts to normalise their lifestyle. Community support, through compensation, and development programs, can help them to reconcile themselves to the injury they have suffered.
Victims of crime
Every crime involves commission of a legal wrong, and involves a perpetrator and one or more victims. Crime victims are people who have been “threatened, harmed or killed, by another person”. The central focus in the aftermath should always be community compassion, recognising the experience of the victim of the crime. The needs of the victim should be addressed first before the offender.
This should primarily involve giving the victim the health or social support they need to deal with the damage they have suffered, and generous financial compensation to indicate community care. The state then takes over the role of the harmed through the justice system to deal with the offender. Victims assist by publicly giving evidence in court. Coronial hearings ensure justice is seen to be done for the whole community. This process depersonalises the punishment, removes the desire for personal vengeance, and focuses on ensuring future safety for all in our civilised community. The maximum punishment is imprisonment and necessarily consequential losses. Revenge beatings or torture are illegal. Differential treatment of prisoners is only permissible as a security issue rather than relating to the unpopularity of the crime or offender. It is significant to note that often, the offenders of crimes are victims first.
Victims of crime may have a variety of responses in the short or long term to their harm. Most people will experience stages of disbelief, shock, sorrow, grief, numbness and anger. Some may return to a regular lifestyle and move beyond the event. Others cannot forget the experience, and the heinousness of the crime increases the pain of the memories. The suffering caused by a crime “changes the lives of many more than the direct victims”. Hence this issue is no less poignant for families of victims of violent crime, who through the loss of a parent, child, sibling or other relative will also carry painful memories of the experience.
It is the responsibility of the community to support victims and their families so that they may deal with their grief and loss. The focus should be on restorative justice if possible; reconciliation of the victim with their injury, reconciliation with the community who has helped them to cope, and reconciliation with the perpetrator who caused the harm.
The case of Andrew Garforth
The responsibility of the state was made clear following the criminal trial of Andrew Garforth. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in 1993 for the rape and murder of Ebony Simpson in 1992. The loss of her daughter has understandably been hardest felt by Ebony’s mother, Christine Simpson.
In July 2015, the Serious Offenders Review Council made a decision to lower Garforth’s prisoner classification from A2 (maximum security) to B (medium security), making him eligible to apply for work and rehabilitation courses. The Council notified Mrs Simpson. She contacted the media. The story was broadcast on TV Channel 9 A Current Affair on the 13th of July 2015.
Mrs Simpson then created a successful online petition, collecting 30,000 signatures in 24 hours, to have the reclassification revoked. The public outrage that followed and Christine’s Simpson petition drove Corrective Services Minister David Elliott to revoke the classification decision and return Garforth to his original maximum-security classification. Mr Elliott stated: “I have come over the top of the Serious Offenders Review Council and have today instructed the Commissioner that Garforth gets zip.”
A Current Affair quoted Justice Action’s coordinator as having said that the Simpson family “needs to get over it”. However that was not true. The transcript shows our statement focussed on the reconciliation of both the family and Garforth:
“It’s a shame for the family to still hold onto such anger towards the man after such a long period, after twenty three years. It’s a good thing for him and a good thing for the community. It’s absolutely essential that Corrective Services does focus on moving him into a lighter less security place. It’s to their benefit, everybody’s benefit, that he can then move on and get some measure of freedom and improvement. It’s a really sad thing to have lost their child but to link it to the man, to the offender, is a shame. They should at some stage, clear the air, move on with their lives, and let him move on with his life as well”.
Justice Action encourages victims and their families to achieve a sense of personal closure, focussing on moving past their anger, and through the help of the wider community to be guided towards leading a more normal life.
David Elliott’s revocation of Garforth’s classification decision could be viewed as an act of political opportunism. After Ms Simpson sparked public outrage about Garforth’s reclassification, Elliott made a number of statements; arguing that “this [the reclassification] is not what this government was elected for” and also that “it is essential that any reclassification of prisoners reflects community expectations”.
However he is wrong as is shown by the Corrective Services NSW manual. Classification isn't a form of punishment, but is a security rating. It is clear that he exploited the anger and grief of victims to be seen to be tough and to justify wrongful punishment rather than defend Garforth's entitlements. The Minister abused his authority and supported the misundertanding of the law.
Involvement of victims in the classification process runs counter to the rehabilitative purposes of sentencing. The decision of NSW Prisons Commissioner Peter Severin to meet with the families of victims of NSW ‘lifers’ will do more harm. It will refresh their pain, link them firmly to the offenders and allow them to influence decisions which should ultimately be made by the justice system generally.
Politicians see a benefit for themselves by upgrading punishment, but it really reflects their lack of care for victims. Mrs Simpson had no support until she publicly demonstrated her grief and anger on national television with a victims' organisation beside her. It reflected how abandoned she felt and was an embarrassment to all who watched.
This was again highlighted by the struggle of Katrina Keshishian. After being the victim of a violent sexual assault, Ms Keshishian had to go public with her story to get the victims' compensation she deserved. The government had reduced victims' payments, but she was successful in getting her claim reassessed. Government has been mean and unresponsive to victims' personal needs but has tried to satisfy them with more pain for the offenders, as a return to the failed system of vengeance.
Role of victims in sentencing and security classification
Victims have the ability to submit Victim Impact Statements prior to sentencing. During the process of security reclassification, they may also make submissions to the Review council regarding the change, which must be considered by the Review Council before it makes a decision.
However, Corrective Services has the final responsibility for dealing with offences after sentencing. Andrew Garforth has served 23 years of his life sentence, making him eligible for a change in security classification as per Corrective Services’ policies and procedures.
Reclassification is ultimately a decision for the welfare of the offender, and while security changes should consider the impact upon victims and their families, their primary focus should ultimately be on the prisoner.
Overall, allowing community vitriol to be directed at prisoners like Andrew Garforth distracts from society’s compassion for victims and their families, and does not help with their reintegration into everyday life. Politicisation of grief is deplorable, and undermines the welfare of victims, their families, and the prisoners under scrutiny.
- Enough is Enough, Victim of Crime Support (30 July 2015), Anti-Violence Movement Inc., <http://www.enoughisenough.org.au/?s=victim>.
- VOCAL, Welcome to VOCAL (2015), Victims of Crime Assistance League, <http://vocal.org.au/>
- HVSG, Grief – Understanding Your Reactions (20 August 2015), Homicide Victims’ Support Group, <http://hvsg.com.au/index.php/support/grief-understanding-your-reactions/>
- VOCAL, Welcome to VOCAL (2015), Victims of Crime Assistance League, <http://vocal.org.au/>
- Channel 9, ‘Ebony’, A Current Affair, 13 July 2015 <http://aca.ninemsn.com.au/article/9007485/ebony>
- Miles Godfrey, ‘Ebony Simpson’s killer Andrew Peter Garforth will ‘die in jail’ says Corrective Services Minister David Elliott’, The Daily Telegraph (online), 21 August 2015, <http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/ebony-simpsons-killer-andrew-peter-garforth-will-die-in-jail-says-corrective-services-minister-david-elliott/story-fni0cx12-1227441075006>
- Channel 9, above n 2.
- Godfrey, above n 3.
- Tim Barlass, ‘NSW Premier Mike Baird admits crime compensation 'mistake' after Katrina Keshishian campaign’, The Sydney Morning Herald (online), 15 March 2015, <http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/nsw-state-election-2015/nsw-premier-mike-baird-admits-crime-compensation-mistake-after-katrina-keshishian-campaign-20150313-143kgb.html>
- Crimes (Administration of Sentences) Act 1999 (NSW) s 68.