850 words; 4 minutes to read
‘Providing closure’ is one of the comments we often hear in media coverage of verdicts and sentences in criminal cases. The suggestion is that a harsh sentence provides victims of crime, or family members of victims, with some kind of relief in regard to the loss and harm they have experienced. But in a new article, law professor Susan Bandes argues that this contention has had some powerful and negative effects on the criminal justice system.
Bandes points out that it is not just the media who speak about a harsh sentence as related to ‘closure’, but that this language is also used by prosecutors and judges in arguing for or justifying such sentences. It has also been used to justify greater use of victim impact statements and more victim participation in the criminal court process. In particular, in the US it has been used to justify the death sentence. At the same time, she asserts that it offers something that the legal system cannot provide – relief from suffering.
What is closure?
What is ‘closure’? As with other terms referring to some kind of emotional state, it can mean very different things. “Closure is a puzzle. Its parameters are fuzzy, its dynamics are murky, and its origins seem to have more to do with law and politics than with psychology.” Bandes provides an interesting discussion of what emotions are, or are thought to be, pointing out that they are often largely shaped by cultural rules and expectations – i.e. we feel what we believe we ought to feel. Indeed, victims of crime may be criticized if they are not sufficiently angry or emotional, or this lack of anger may itself be taken as evidence of trauma.
While ‘closure’ in courts is cloaked in the language of healing after trauma, Bandes notes that there is rarely any connection in court proecures to the literature on healing. The available research does not support the view that specific legal practices or outcomes have any particular effect on how victims feel afterwards, even if some do feel a certain satisfaction in the short term. For example, one US study “found that court systems continue to rely on the families’ claimed support for capital punishment as a vehicle for closure even as the families themselves increasingly reject capital punishment”.
Emotions we ‘should’ feel
The justice system is designed in some ways to reflect public understandings of how we should respond to crime. But in other respects, it helps to create those understandings. The legal system legitimizes actions such as treating children as adults in court proceedings, or sentencing people to 50 or 75 or more years of incarceration. It should be remembered that things that seem normal to us today might in future be seen in the same light as we now think about sentencing people to being flogged or being drawn and quartered or being executed for minor theft, or prisons in which prisoners were not allowed to speak. All of those, too, were at one time regarded as not just normal, but appropriate practices. Had the word ‘closure’ existed, it would surely have been invoked in justifying practices that we now regard as abhorrent.
Is it the job of the criminal justice system to help victims and families feel better after a crime? And what if the victims don’t feel better? Does that mean there is something ‘wrong’ with them? Do courts give credence to victim impact statements that are, for example, focused on forgiveness and recovery, or are they primarily a tool for prosecutors to support harsher sentences? When cameras are thrust in the faces of people traumatized by a crime, are their responses likely to be thoughtful, or shaped by what reporters want to hear? Indeed, Bandes writes, “it has seemed that the emotions of murder victims’ families have been evoked only when they advanced other institutional goals.”
What do victims want?
Based on interviews with victims and family members, and on related studies, Bandes shows that different people have very different ideas of what ‘closure’ means – from never having to see the person who committed the crime again, to wanting vengeance, to simple relief that the legal process is over. But, Bandes writes, most victims do not believe that any particular sentence will help them cope better with the trauma they have experienced.
There is a research literature on what would help victims of crime, and that has much more to do with supports and services to them than it does with the outcomes of the court process, though victims do want to know what is happening with that process. As another study cited by Bandes put it, “the received social expectation that survivors will experience closure plays a major role in the process, and rarely a beneficial one.”
The situation for victims of crime remains a subject of discussion in Canada also, with many different perspectives being put forward. This government site provides one official look at the issue.
Thomas J. Mowen and Ryan D. Schroeder, Not In My Name: An Investigation of Victims’ Family Clemency Movements and Court Appointed Closure, 12 Western Criminology Review 65 (2011).
Marilyn Peterson Armour and Mark S. Umbreit, Assessing the Impact of the Ultimate Penal Sanction on Homicide Survivors: A Two State Comparison, 96 Marquette Law Review 1 (2012).