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Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Book Review: "Crime And Its Victims" by Daniel Van Ness

As of this writing, there are nearly 600 distinct crime-related shows on television each week. We have a strange fascination with crime: as long as it happens to someone else, we are easily entertained; yet, each of us have a personal relationship with crime in some way.

The problem of crime, the disservice received by victims of crime and recommended reforms from a biblical perspective are the subjects covered Daniel Van Ness in his informative 240 page book, “Crime and Its Victims” (Inter-Varsity: Downers Grove, 1986). Why offer a book review of a twenty-four year-old book? Van Ness has a great concern for the victims of crime. “[C]rime is a spiritual malaise, the result of individuals making wrong moral choices. It is a matter of the heart and can be solved only when we apply moral solutions” (p. 11).

This book is divided into four major parts, then subdivided into smaller chapters. The first section, “What’s Happening Here?” explains the relationship between victim and criminal. Chapter 1, “Victims,” explains that crime is “an encounter between a victim and an offender . . . an unexpected personal crises” left unresolved by the state, who distinguishes between criminal cases (determining “whether a defendant has indeed broken a law established by the state”) and civil cases (determining “whether one person has injured another and if so, how the wrongdoer will restore the victim”). Chapter 2,“Being Victimized” next describes categories of victims based on degrees of responsibility to crime: those “unrelated” to the criminal other than through the crime itself; those who were “provocative,” or victim-caused crimes, such as through retaliation; or “precipative,” in that one has nothing to do with the criminal, but behavior of the victim has instigated, tempted or allured the criminal to act. Regardless, there exists a permanent alteration in one’s view of self and world because of crime.

The next two chapters can be demanding on the reader as one is challenged to wonder if the punishment actually fits the crime. Chapter 3, “Prisoners” simply asks for sympathy on part of the reader by hinting through a specific case study and not fully explaining that varieties of people populate an ineffective prison system. Chapter 4, “Being Imprisoned,” underscores the cost paid by the prisoner for crime through loss of liberty (“a perpetual reminder that the prisoner has been judged and convicted”); loss of goods and services (i.e. loss of personal property, even basic needs); loss of heterosexual relationships; loss of autonomy (regulations, for the sake of security); and finally, loss of security (not every criminal is violent and are often victims of those who are). “For one brief moment the victim and the offender confront each other. The crime establishes a relationship in which one wounds another. But we never deal with the wound. We try offenders when we catch them. And we sometimes send them to prison, not for the injury done to the victims, but because they broke the law. So now we have two wounds, and no healing.” (p. 58)

The second section, “How We Got Here,” is historical, explaining in three illuminating chapters major shifts that have occurred regarding crime. Chapter 5 “The Rise of State-Centered Justice” shows how the victim-centered focus of ancient law (criminals and their families were held responsible to victims and their families) shifted to a state-centered focus and the role of the victim reduced to a witness “that a wrong had been done.” Chapter 6, “People vs. Defendant” presents the working definition of crime as “lawbreaking, an offense against law and government.” Additionally, subsequent approaches to criminology are explained followed by the history and philosophy of the prison system, which helps the reader appreciate words he or she daily takes for granted, such as: incarceration (“held in captivity until death”); penitentiary (a place to reflect on guilt and repent); the lesser-known “Auburn System” (discipline and hard work); and finally, the reformatory (education and training). Chapter 7, “The Purpose of Punishment” induces one to ask, “does punishment reduce crime, or it punishment imposed because of crime?” while exploring the roles of deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation.

Section three asks, “How Scripture Can Help Us?” Chapter 8 generally explains the context, purpose and application of the Mosaic law. The Mosaic law is presented as a paradigm, with universal character that defines righteousness and justice. Chapter 9, “Justice and Righteousness,” shows how “the biblical concept of justice is much different and even more foreign to modern Americans” (p. 114) in that: first, God is the source of both justice and righteousness; and second, how Justice itself has moved to the problem of due process and fairness. “Justice is . . . more than vindication of those who have been wronged . . . [but] to establish once again the shalom that existed before the offense. Justice is active and relational and it is redemptive in its intent” (p. 121). Chapter 10, “The Law and Criminal Justice” distinguishes between moral, civil and ceremonial law that distinguished Israel from the surrounding nations (elevating life over property, people over punishment). There is also discussed different kinds of punishment, and the role of restitution toward reconciliation in cases.


Section four, “Hope For the Future” closes the book, considering how restitution is beneficial in our time. Chapter 11, “Reducing Crime,” characterizes the peaceful community and offers suggestions on reducing crime, starting with the rejection of “the view that crime is simply an injury to the monarch or to the state” (p. 145). Chapter 12, “Responding to Crime,” presents options when crime does occur that includes the restoration of the victim with sensitivities toward appropriate punishments that fit crime: community service for non-violent offenders, and victim advocacy groups that lend assistance. Chapter 13, “Restraining Criminals,” explores the philosophy and purpose of restraint and confinement toward an appropriate use of prison. This is followed by a discussion on capital punishment. Chapter 14 answers the question, “Where Do We Go From Here?” by suggesting how the reader can offer “constructive assistance” by staying informed on the condition of local prisons, and how to discover what victim assistance and compensation programs are available.

Most helpful was the insight Van Ness brought concerning the relationship between victim and criminal. Writing from the perspective of a practicing lawyer, he is open and honest regarding challenges to his own presuppositions. As a victim of crime himself, he writes “It did not occur to us, nor to the prosecutor or judge, that the criminal justice process we were a part of was divorced from the crimes which we and countless other victims had experienced.” Defendants are accused of breaking laws established by the state, not for what they did specifically to other people. Victims only confirm as witness that law had been broken.

Van Ness confuses the reader in his presentation on victimology in Chapter 2. While trying to establish the relationship that exists (intentional or otherwise) between victim and criminal, and the subsequent crises created in the life of the victim(s), he leans without resolution on the responsibility of the victim and his part in the crime. Chapter 3, discussing the case of the prisoner and the ineffectiveness of the current system seems to call for sympathy. Crime indirectly creates victims out of those who pay taxes. “[L]ocking up more people is becoming prohibitively expensive . . . do we need to lock up all those people?” (p. 45)

The work Van Ness did in the second section covering the history and philosophy of crime and the prison system proves to be quite valuable. He demonstrates the inadequacies of current approaches concerning crime and punishment; however, many of his points are inferred and are difficult to identify.

While the third section is very informative regarding the biblical background to moral, civil and ceremonial law, and the point is clearly made regarding the need for restitution and restoration of the victim, very little is said regarding spiritual need of victim and criminal. The book underscores the difference between person and property, but the principles fail in application, focusing on restoring what was lost materially. While the author does an excellent job explaining righteousness and justice, he misses a perfect opportunity to point to the Cross and the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ, the need for atonement and the role of repentance by faith, to satisfy the justice handed down by God, to whom we are all accountable.

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