Law in Contemporary Society

The Criminal Trial as Emotional Reparation for the Victim

-- By CaseyBoyle - 11 Feb 2008

The criminal trial serves many purposes in American society. Its most well-recognized function is to uncover the truth and allocate justice by collecting and interpreting evidence and then rendering a judgment based on that interpretation. The criminal trial also serves another important, but often overlooked, purpose – to aid in the emotional reparation of the victim.

How the Criminal Trial Serves this Purpose

It serves this purpose in two overlapping ways. For one, it provides a forum through which victims can rehash the crime and verify their own righteousness. Secondly, it acts as a legitimate and formalized means by which victims can convert their moral and emotional sentiments into permanent judgments. In so doing, the criminal trial aids the victim in his emotional and psychological recovery by transforming him from a powerless victim into a powerful seeker of justice.

Affords the Victim the Opportunity to Rehash the Crime

The criminal trial achieves this purpose of repairing the victim by affording an opportunity for the victim to verbally rehash the events of the crime before a judge, jury, and the perpetrator. This verbalization process is psychologically liberating, especially when the judge and jury accept the victim’s version of the facts. When judge and jury are on his side, the victim achieves not only the benefit of liberation through verbalization, but also achieves the psychological benefits of what feels like an alliance against the perpetrator. In this way, the victim is able to verify his own righteousness. With the force of the state standing behind him, the victim is elevated to the status of the powerful and rightful seeker of justice and revenge.

Serves as a Legitimate Forum through which the Victim Seeks Retribution

The criminal trial also achieves this reparative function by acting as a formalized means through which the victim seeks his own private form of retribution. More specifically, the criminal trial affords the victims of a crime the opportunity to enact their “revenge” in a legitimate, socially-endorsed way. Through the criminal trial, vengeance is institutionalized and endorsed by the conscience of society and the wallet of the state. The trial is a mechanism by which undifferentiated hatred and pain is converted into permanent final judgments. In the process, the individual undergoes a transformation that stems from the trial’s ability to justify his pain in the wake of a final judgment that inflicts equal damage on the offender.

Features of the Criminal Trial that Demonstrate that One of its Purposes is to Emotionally Repair the Victim

Trials are Elaborate and Formalized

Some features of the criminal trial demonstrate that one of its purposes is to emotionally repair the victim. The fact that trials are elaborate, lengthy, and often well-publicized suggests that fact- and truth-finding might not be its core purpose. If those were the trial’s central functions, it would be sufficient to have private testimony, followed by private deliberation and sentencing.

Instead, trials have been structured to be quite public affairs. Rather than promoting truth, publicity and elaboration do more to serve the purpose of helping victims overcome a tragedy by garnering much-needed public support.

The Use of Victim Impact Statements

The use of victim-impact statements is another feature of the criminal trial that furthers this reparative goal. In these statements, victims describe the consequences of the crime for their lives, explaining in great detail the extent of grief suffered and the damage inflicted on their personal lives, and often include a recommendation of what the victim regards as suitable punishment for the perpetrator. These statements explicitly allow judges and juries to take emotional damage into account during the sentencing and verdict deliberation processes, and by considering the victim’s conception of a fair punishment, they also take the victim’s need for revenge seriously. It may be argued that they further the criminal justice system’s goal of deterrence. But, upon even cursory consideration, it is clear that they have no deterrent effect. Would-be criminals cannot readily foresee the emotional and psychological consequences of their actions, and therefore cannot rationally differentiate between potential victims based on this fact. Thus, in terms of seeking deterrence, the use of victim-impact statements can be seen as extraneous to the criminal trial process. But if the purpose of the criminal trial is reconceived to take into account the emotionally reparative aspect, the reason these statements are admissible is clear. Victim-impact statements are the most direct way to convert a victim’s moral and emotional sentiments into permanent final judgments.

Reconceiving the Criminal Trial's Function

Focusing on the emotionally reparative aspect of a criminal trial demonstrates that our criminal system is rarely a wholly objective arbiter of truth and justice. When the trial’s primary function is to uncover the truth and serve justice, this perpetuates the notion that our system is objective and fair, an ideal that has been elusive. By shifting our attention to the ways in which the criminal trial furthers a secondary purpose – the emotional reparation of the victim – the criminal justice system can be seen as a more subjective means by which victims enact moral “revenge” in a formalized fashion. To achieve the goal of reparation, some degree of subjectivity at certain points in the trial might be desirable for it allows the judge to tailor the process to the emotional needs of the victim. Thus, by fully understanding the multiple purposes that the criminal trial serves, subjectivity will no longer be seen as an inescapable enemy, but as a legitimate aspect of the process.


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r6 - 12 Jan 2009 - 22:45:59 - IanSullivan
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