Just over a year ago, my common room in Berkeley North Court was burglarized. On a Sunday night, two local teenagers followed Yale students into the courtyard and then into my entryway. They went up to our third-floor suite, found it propped open, came in, took the first things they saw — my laptop and my suitemate’s backpack — and promptly left. The entire thing took place so quickly that my suitemate, who was in the bathroom next door, didn’t encounter them in passing.
Even scarier, these two teenagers came to our room directly from Temple street, where they had just finished assaulting a grown man. They were clearly violent.
But despite all this, we were really lucky: the criminals were stopped by Yale Security leaving our entryway. Our belongings were returned to us, and no one was hurt.
A few months after that happened, I got a call from someone identifying herself as the lead prosecutor for the case. Since I was one of the victims of the crime, she thought she owed me an update on how things were progressing, which I very much appreciated. But at the very end, she posed a question that threw me off. “So, what exactly do you want to see out of this trial?”
I didn’t exactly know what she meant, so I asked her to repeat herself. “I mean, as the victim, how harshly do you want them to be tried?” For lack of a better response, all I said was that she should just do it “the normal way” and let the legal system run its course. She thanked me and hung up.
But that question has haunted me ever since. To me, it seems to reflect a fundamentally incorrect view of the justice system. Why exactly do we prosecute and imprison people? Is it to make people like me, whose life was affected by their acts, feel better?
I sincerely hope it isn’t — for as much as I was shaken by the burglary, I don’t think that my experience is what should drive how we deal with criminals, especially not in the prosecutorial stage. In the sentencing process, I can understand why victims’ input can sometimes be crucially important. I know that Yale, for example, allows the victims of sexual misconduct to weigh in on the penalties of the rapists, which can empower victims to speak up. In other cases such as determining bail, the victims’ experience can be educational in terms of determining whether or not this criminal is likely to act again, or poses a threat if released back into society.
But this prosecutor was not asking me that question. Her question essentially boils down to asking me how upset I was, and how I wanted her to prosecute these criminals as a result. But that is not how our courts are meant to work. People are punished for breaking the law, not for making me upset. These criminals are not more or less guilty depending on how strongly I feel. Moreover, if prosecutors modify how well they do their job based on the feelings of the victims, how does that lead to a fair and just system? If the same exact thing had happened to someone who, a month later, was still livid and bent on revenge, would the verdict a year later have been any different?
I certainly hope not — for as long as we insist on viewing our trials as simply retributive or punitive on behalf of the victim, there is no way that the system can transcend petty grievances. The entire criminal justice system should not be a charade to effect personal revenge, but rather a method by which lawbreakers are fairly made to deal with the repercussions of their actions.
This goal is not served by catering to my unhappiness; my involvement should have ended the moment the two of them were apprehended. Treating me otherwise only perpetuates a cycle of bad behavior.
Victoria Hall-Palherm is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.