The Wamback family is praying that meetings with Canada’s political leaders today will open the way for a crime victims’ bill of rights
By THANE BURNETT
The window is open. Slightly.
But, says Joe Wamback, it might be all he, his family and supporters need to stir the right people — wide awake.
Today, victims’ rights advocates Joe, his wife Lozanne and their son Jonathan — who, in June of 1999, at 15 years old, was viciously assaulted by young offenders — are expected to be face to face with all the right people.
The trio will be in Ottawa to meet with, among others, Prime Minister Paul Martin, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Jack Layton. They’ll also sit down with Martin’s senior staff and a number of MPs who’ve carved out a platform on justice issues, including Randy White, Art Hanger and Alan Tonks.
Like Christmas in November — in a preamble to an expected federal election — the Wamback’s pilgrimage will represent a golden opportunity to push for an amendment to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms on behalf of victims of crime.
“It’s our window of opportunity,” Joe told me before heading to Ottawa today. “Am I saying it’s going to translate into immediate (government) action? No. But I hope it opens up the debate.”
In September, the Wambacks, among the country’s most listened-to victims’ advocates, shipped out 301 letters. One was mailed to each MP. And it has been, so far, the Liberals who have responded to his call– something he finds odd, given the strong law and order origins of Conservatives.
“It’s not a political statement,” he cautions. “We’re looking for … all politicians to take this on.”
They want the debate their proposals stir — fuelled by today’s meetings — to become election issues. What their Canadian Crime Victim Foundation is asking for are nine guarantees under the Constitution. They include:
– “The right to be reasonably protected from the accused, including safety and security in the criminal justice process and to adjudicative decisions that duly consider the victim’s safety.
– “The right to reasonable, accurate, and timely notice of any public proceeding involving the crime or of any release, parole, pardon or escape of the accused or convicted.
– “The right not to be excluded from any public proceeding.
– “The right to be reasonably heard at any public proceeding including parole, release, plea or sentencing.
– “The right to confer with the attorney for the government in the case.
– “The right to full and timely restitution as provided in law and to adjudicative decisions that duly consider the victim’s just and timely claims to restitution.
– “The right to proceedings free from unreasonable delay and to adjudicative decisions that duly consider the victim’s interest in avoiding unreasonable delay.
– “The right to be treated with fairness and with respect for the victim’s dignity and privacy.
– “The right to restorative compensation by the state.”
While we’ve all seen and read — especially this past summer — what a toll violent crimes have taken on our society, especially within our large cities, Joe says most people can’t fully understand the “echo … the rebound, felt by victims.”
It includes the unseen — long after the police tape has been taken down. For instance, more than nine out of ten couples will split up after losing a child to violence.
A U.S. study found that one murder costs society — in lost opportunity, income and impact on the family — $2.7 million.
While there are guidelines in treating victims — and legislation in the works — almost all have no true legal muscle. It’s more a matter of compassion than legislation.
While officials have long trumpeted “victim-impact statements,” anyone who has been in court when they’re read aloud knows that the sentence — in fact, the judge’s entire address — has already been prepared before they’re uttered.
Canada, Joe believes, has fallen far down the list when it comes to how we treat the victims of crime. Out of 29 countries surveyed by his group, we placed dead last.
Poland and Colombia, he says, came out ahead of us in their treatment of victims.
When it comes to compensation, consider this: A convict who has an item stolen while in prison has the right to have his claim settled within 60 days.
This year the Wambacks finally received a letter from the provincially run Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, saying they were ready to hear the family’s claim. It was one day short of six years since Jonathan was beaten.
And when it is heard, the boys who beat him a breath away from death have the right not only to know about the hearing but to also have their say.
For some time, Canadians have been smug when it comes to American crime and victims. We look at the U.S. and say they have it so much worse.
“Do you realize a woman is twice as likely to be raped here in Canada than in the U.S.?” Joe asks, citing a UN report.
“Imagine the significance for a victim of sexual or domestic violence to have her safety considered when release decisions are made,” he says.
The Wambacks don’t expect all their proposals to survive. Joe has heard the criticism, that extra rights would put even more pressure on crime victims. It’s not unusual, he says, for victims “to encounter this type of paternalistic attitude and secondary assault.”
“I suggest that victims advocate groups and individual victims are the better judge of that point than criminal defense attorneys and offender–based organizations.”
Joe believes, with an election close and violence on our front pages, that a window of opportunity exists.
“Perhaps I’m naive,” says a man who is anything but that.
“I still believe these politicians will want to do what they can. This is our best chance at reaching them.”