(Image: National Center For Victims Of Crime)
For the past eight years, as a journalist, I have been deeply enmeshed in investigating and chronicling the winter 2004 unsolved vanishings of two young women. The two women, Maura Murray, who was 21-years old at the time, and Brianna Maitland, who was only 17-years old, both disappeared in rural sections of New Hampshire and Vermont respectively. Both women were attractive and had been driving at night when something still mysterious happened to each of them. In both cases the investigating authorities strongly suspect foul play, the exact, or even vague, natures of which remain near completely unknown.
As one can easily expect, the parents and families of Maura and Brianna are devastated by their disappearances and with the uncertainty of their fates. Having extensively investigated and written about both cases, I have spoken at length with both families and suffice it to say, as both a human being and the father of 3 children, I found the experience to be deeply painful on a number of levels.
In the process, I also have become acutely aware of how the victims of such cases are often forgotten in any public accounts of the incidents.
Sure, in any updated news pieces, there’s the obligatory statement from one or both the parents, and little more. Rarely, if ever, does any examining journalist seriously focus on the ongoing nightmare and netherworld that the affected parents and families dwell within day in and day out, never-ending.
For a parent, there is nothing worse than the loss of a child, other than the unresolved loss of a child. The haunting unknowing shrouds one like a permanent gloom and the cruel tricks one’s imagination can play are constant dark companions that lurk everywhere. There can be no true peace or sleep or rest or relaxation. Real happiness is out of the question. There is an emptiness that exponentially expands and becomes ever more hollow and hurtful until it feels as if one is actually suffocating.
I’ve often thought how wonderful it would be, what an actual demonstration of cosmic justice it would be, if families like the Murrays and Maitlands could somehow receive some faint form of justice despite the unresolved nature of their nightmares, justice for the unsolved crimes they’ve been so brutally and ruthlessly victimized by. I say ‘faint’ because I know it is impossible to compensate in any realistic way for the loss of a child. ‘Closure’, as many are beginning to realize, is a ridiculous concept perhaps only invented and kept alive by the ‘helping industry’ that profits from its fostering. There is no closure to such matters. Period. But a measure of much needed justice is not impossible.
So, with this as way of background, when I received notice last week from Antioch Law School’s alumni association of a new book entitled "Parallel Justice For Victims of Crime" my attention was captured, and I read the book as quickly as I could get a copy. The slim, 168-page volume, by college professor, activist and attorney Susan Herman, is an excellent, subtly compassionate and concise book that expertly encapsulates the problem of how we as a nation miserably fail victims of crime and how we can make this right.
Susan Herman well knows and understands what she is writing about. Herman, the mother of 2 children (in my view, motherhood counts for a great deal here), is an associate professor in the Criminal Justice Department at Pace University, but this may the least of her qualifications to write about justice for victims of crime. Herman, a graduate of Antioch School of Law, has also served as the executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, Special Counsel to the Police Commissioner at the NYPD, and director of the Domestic Violence Division of Victim Services in New York City, and an attorney at NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.
As a result of this impressive combination of life and profession experience, Herman decided to focus her efforts on victim’s issues and establishing what she calls Parallel Justice for victims of crime—a framework that exists within and outside the criminal justice process. Herman recently said of crime victims: “I want to build bridges between victim advocates and victims of any kind of crime— and anyone who wants to make our collective response to crime more humane and effective.” “Our response to vicrtims should be part of our collective conception of justice, not just relegated to charity.”
Simply put, parallel justice is a comprehensive effort to provide real and necessary services to victims of crime that address their physical, financial, and emotional needs and enhance their inclusion in the justice system, that often ignores or excludes them, to ensure that they are treated with respect and are notified, present and heard at any formal proceeding they wish to participate in.
A significant characteristic of parallel justice, that distinguishes it from other victim justice models like restorative justice, is that parallel justice would be available to victims of crime even when there are no offenders identified. This alone is especially important in relation to the thousands of family members across the country who await the fate of vanished loved ones and exist in a twilight state of uncertainty and apprehension.
Another central characteristic of parallel justice is that it maintains that restoring the victim is as much a responsibility of the government as apprehending and prosecuting criminals. This feature lends great credence and legitimacy to the overall chief responsibility of the state to protect its citizens.
Says Herman, “For every reported crime, our society spends enormous resources responding to the incident and trying to apprehend and prosecute the offender. With parallel justice, there would be a second parallel set of responses to help ensure the victims safety, to help the victim recover from the trauma of crime, and to provide resources to help victims get their lives back on track.”
The solutions and remedies recommended by Ms. Herman in her book are direct and, silly politics and bureaucracy aside, easy to implement. Evidence of this is that communities in California, North Carolina, and Vermont have already developed small, pilot programs to test Herman’s concepts. Vermont has created a Parallel Justice Commission in Burlington to implement these ideas.
The absolute tragedies that countless victims of crime have to endure today in the U.S. are stark and ugly manifestations of a number of socio-economic and crime-related factors that appear to be out-of-control in the U.S. today. Perhaps, just perhaps, with the seemingly simple and amply logical amount of sanity Herman’s proposals for parallel justice bring to the situation, cause for wide-spread emulation and hope can be discovered in the logic and sanity of Susan Herman’s call for parallel justice for victims of crime. Adoption of Herman’s concept also may well go a long way in restoring confidence in government, a benefit that would be most welcomed in these times of extreme cynicism toward government.