Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Dominick Dunne and the Punitive Victim Model

Amidst the budget developments, CJC news, and other pressing events, it is worthwhile to pause for a minute and reflect on Dominick Dunne's recent passing. Others have done a better job at discussing his life, work, and legacy as a journalist and author; I would like to spend a bit of time discussing the victim paradigm advocated by Dunne, its impact on the criminal justice system, and some lessons to be learned from the combination of society intrigue and justice administration.

In a 1999 article, Kent Roach details four models of the criminal process. He supplements the original two models provided by Herbert Packer in a classic piece with two newer ones, arguing that the original models - the crime control model and the due process model - did not account for victims and for the victimization experience. Roach proceeds to provide two versions of criminal justice that include and respect victims: the punitive and non-punitive victim models.

The punitive victim model, argues Roach, is like a rollercoaster. Fuelled by victim advocates and organizations, it features constant pressure to amend criminal provisions in punitive directions, ratcheting up sentences and generating specific regimes to deal with crimes that are prone to moral panic. Calls for victim rights are invariably accompanied by calls for changes in penal policy. A classic example of legislation in this vein is last November's Proposition 9.

Dominick Dunne's work was a contribution to this punitive victim perspective. His writings on celebrity trials often protested what he perceived as horrible crime going unadressed and powerful defendants escaping the system unscathed. In reporting on such cases, he may have found some peace after his horrible ordeal. But when I came across his pieces, on occasion, I have always found them incredibly sad, and have often thought whether he would have found more solace in embracing something akin to Roach's non-punitive victim model, which consists of ways to reconcile, restore, and make amends.

There is, however, an important message to be taken from Dunne's work, though it was never an explicit part of his writings. His pieces, it should be remembered, focused often on upper-crust socialite defendants. In highlighting the ways in which power and social advantage works to thwart the criminal process, he could have drawn a contrast between these rare cases and the cases that constitute the vast majority of courtroom caseload. We can draw these parallels ourselves, though, and contemplate the disadvantages and difficulties of those for whom the process is the punishment, rather than an inconvenience that can be resolved with financial resources.

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