Unique Stressor- Surviving the Criminal Justice System

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A Unique Stressor: The Criminal Justice System

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Most survivors turn to the criminal justice system for a special kind of emotional support as well as practical support in their passion to see the assailant apprehended, prosecuted, convicted and punished.

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Initial reaction may seem fueled by revenge . When outsiders like the criminal justice system see only vengefulness in the survivors, and miss the other feelings at work -- feelings of wanting to restore just order to the world, an order that has been so badly violated by the murderer -- and feelings that it is important to do something about the crime as a way to combat their sense of helplessness. Those who see only the survivor's anger are often put off ("frightened" may be more accurate) by its intensity. By the way survivors are put at arm's length means that, even in cases that end up with a severe sentence, the survivor may not feel vindicated or relieved.

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Perceived failure of the criminal justice system . When an arrest is made relief bordering on euphoria is common among survivors, who often believe that now everything is going to be all right. What they are most always forced to learn is that arrests do not necessarily result in prosecutions, or prosecutions in convictions, or convictions in stiff sentences, or stiff sentences ordered in stiff sentences served.

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Delays . If the case does go to trial, the trial dates may be postponed and delayed for months or years. Barring from court procedures . In some states, not Arizona, survivors are often barred from attending the proceedings because it is felt that their presence may prove prejudicial to the jury.

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Failure to inform . It is the fate of many survivors to not even be informed if prosecution charges have been filed. Before the movement for victim rights and services gained momentum in the 1980s, the surviving relatives were not considered the "direct victims" of homicide, and so, unless they were key witnesses, they were simply forgotten as often as not. "Victims' Bill of Rights," adopted by a majority of states, are putting an end to this thoughtless process.

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Hope for a plea bargain . The survivors who are kept informed of the progress of a prosecution may often hope that a plea bargain will be struck, at least if it means a guilty plea to first or second degree murder, or if it means a conviction when the prosecutor has serious evidentiary problems in the case. Survivors learn, however, that guilty pleas are much less common in homicide cases than in other types of crime.

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Disillusionment with a plea bargain . If there is a plea bargain the survivor often has stress because there was no public ritual to condemn the person who committed so hideous a crime.

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Problems with the verdict . The outcome of hearings usually boils down to three categories in the view of most survivors: (1) a "not guilty" verdict, (2) a "guilty" verdict, but which, for one reason or another, produces an inappropriate sentence, and (3) a "guilty" verdict that produces an appropriate sentence.

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If a "guilty" verdict is handed down with an inappropriate sentence from the perspective of the survivor, the reactions are usually the same.

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If a "guilty" verdict is handed down followed by an appropriately severe sentence from the perspective of the survivor, survivors are often surprised by their response. Survivors typically assume that a just conclusion will salve their pain, and they are sometimes shocked when it does not. One reason for this is that, from the point of arrest onward, most survivors concentrate so much on the criminal justice dimension that they do not allow themselves the time or space for grieving. Hence, when the trial is over, their emotions are no longer "on hold" and they are plunged back to a starting place in the grieving process.

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Victim impact statement. Thanks to legislation mandating "victim impact statements," survivors in most states now have a right to have some input into the sentencing. Sometimes it is a written, objective statement of how the murder affected the survivors financially, medically, and emotionally. In some states, this information may be supplemented by the survivor's opinions as to what the sentence should be. And in at least a few states, survivors are permitted to speak to the judge at the sentencing hearing itself.

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