Every day of the week, Monday through Friday, a drama plays out in an American courtroom.
Seated at a table next to his attorney, facing a judge, is a criminal defendant. He is stoic, possibly glaring, maybe even crying, as he waits to hear the words that will change his life.
Seated across the room, about to speak, is a victim of a violent crime. The defendant knows full well that his actions are the cause of the victim’s pain and suffering. Now he must sit and listen to how the victim feels about what he did to him or her, or their loved one, or their friend.
Today is the day of sentencing.
It’s the day when victims have the opportunity to fully express their grief, voice their anger, and make known the extent of their pain.
Most defendants will long remember the words that are spoken to them on this day. When the judge announces their sentence, then bangs the gavel, that moment will stick in their minds indefinitely.
As for the words of the victims, they typically have little effect on a defendant. If they do somehow manage to move him appropriately, the feeling will be short-lived.
The painful truth is this: Our adversarial justice system feeds and breeds callousness. Ultimately, trying to evade culpability inoculates against empathy.
A defendant who pleads “Not Guilty,” despite the fact that he is 100% guilty, has spent months maintaining his innocence before the day of sentencing. Plausible fictions were concocted to hoodwink everyone from his attorney to members of the jury. Family and friends were enlisted, and some manipulated, to corroborate his story.
All of this to no avail.
Having tried so mightily to circumvent justice, he now stares into the abyss of being locked away, quite possibly, for decades.
Given the circumstances, it should come as no surprise that at the time of sentencing the sentiments of victims rarely elicit the proper reaction from the recently convicted defendant.
His mind is not in the right state.
He has not given up on his cause, not just yet.
He has a constitutional right to appeal his conviction and sentence; and because of this, taking responsibility would be a foolish thing—from a legal standpoint, not morally. He might just find himself with another opportunity to sell his tale to another jury.
So the charade continues.
I know firsthand what it is like to be trapped in this cycle of madness. Little time, if any, was spent reflecting on those I had gunned down. For far too long, the sentence I received—and its impact on my own family—was the only tragedy that I perceived.
But when the appeals are over, and you are still confined, you can begin to see reality.
Some never accept it, for they have lived the lie for far too long.
Yet many others besides myself finally come to recognize not only their victim’s suffering but also the impact that their crimes had on the community.
It is a slow process.
It takes time.
But it happens.
In my experience, it is only from this point forward that true rehabilitation can occur. This is when the defendant-cum-prisoner is ready to listen, and learn. This is when the voices of the victims need to be heard.
Indeed, this is when prisoners should be given an opportunity to say what they should have said at sentencing. Not to offer excuses or to seek forgiveness, but to acknowledge responsibility and articulate their understanding of the harm that they caused by committing their crimes.
The Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) provides a template for prison systems to establish a policy that assists victims and survivors in dealing with the impact of crime, and for prisoners to take steps towards personal accountability.
Crime victims, including the survivors in homicide cases, can request to participate in facilitated dialogues with the perpetrators of the offense. The purpose is to assist victims and survivors to deal with the impact of these crimes.
WDOC also maintains an Accountability Letter Bank (ALB). Prisoners who wish to take responsibility for their crimes can write letters to their victims and they are stored in the ALB. Victims can register to receive notification when a letter is deposited and request to have it forwarded to them.
While this policy is not being utilized to its full potential, WDOC recognizes that there is much to be done after a sentencing hearing besides sending victims home and escorting defendants to prison.
The majority of prisoners will one day be released, and those who actively take responsibility for the suffering they caused are less likely to repeat such acts in the future.
Admittedly, there is nothing that can be done to reverse the harm caused when one person victimizes another. But the community, victims, and offenders are better served when correctional systems embrace restorative practices.
Jeremiah Bourgeois is an inmate at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, WA, where he is currently serving 25 years to life for a crime committed when he was 14. He will be eligible to go before the parole board in 2017. He welcomes comments from readers.