Victim support systems are needed

Victim support systems are needed

By Chang Chuan-fen 張娟芬


Monday, Mar 22, 2010, Page 8

Capital punishment has been around for a long time, but the controversy over the death penalty has never been the cause of such agitation, indignation and passion as it is right now. It started with tense questioning by legislators, followed by incensed reporting in the media and then by impassioned protests from relatives of crime victims. Finally, it led to former minister of justice Wang Ching-feng's (王清峰) resignation, leaving her Cabinet post vacant. Perhaps the government should place a job ad: "The Republic of China Cabinet seeks to recruit one minister of justice - those unwilling to sign death warrants need not apply."

At the beginning, this debate had valid implications regarding the law and public interest. The Constitution protects people's right to life, and this protection can only be limited under certain circumstances. But capital punishment deprives convicts of their right to life, so does it contravene the nation's most basic law? This is the constitutional aspect of the death penalty debate. 

In Taiwan's judicial system, a case is finalized following the trial in the first instance and two appeals, yet there is a procedural requirement for the minister of justice, who belongs to the executive arm of government, to review cases involving capital punishment and to sign execution warrants only after confirming that there are no doubtful aspects. 
Is this procedure intended as a cautionary measure allowing the executive branch to check and balance the actions of the judiciary? This is an argument about capital punishment with regard to political structures. Should a dubious law be enforced? Is a bad law still a law? These are philosophical arguments about capital punishment. 

If there is a possibility that a convict's death sentence may be commuted to life imprisonment, is it permissible to quickly carry out the execution before the sentence can be commuted? This is an ethical argument about capital punishment.

These arguments, be they matters of legal principles or value judgments, are all worthy of discussion, yet the current wave of controversy over the death penalty has quickly fallen from this high plain of debate to a lower level. 

Almost overnight, the whole thing became personalized. Victims' relatives have come out in opposition to abolishing the death penalty because they are unable to escape from their personal trauma. Wang wants capital punishment to be abolished because of her "personal" principles. As to those on death row, it goes without saying that they have wicked "personalities" and have committed unforgivable crimes.

Only if we can get back to treating the matter seriously as an issue of public concern can there be dialogue between people holding different values. Sober discussion about whether to retain or abolish capital punishment could serve to improve the general public's understanding of the legal system. 

Personalized arguments should be set aside. What is important is to change things on the level of social structures and systems. 

At present, the only support society gives to victims' relatives is to offer them the perpetrator's head on a plate. When victims' relatives get agitated and talk in extreme terms, we treat them with patience and tolerance and do not offer any criticism. None of this is of any real benefit to victims and their families.

Victims' protection should include financial support, comfort for psychological trauma and assistance during the course of trials. At present, all victims and their families have to rely on is monetary compensation as is stipulated in the Governing Protection of Victims of Criminal Acts (犯罪被害人保護法). However, exclusion clauses in the law mean that not every victim is entitled to such compensation. Compensation, when given, is a one-off payment, not an annual one, so it is of limited benefit to victims who have lost their ability to work. Psychological support is provided not by the state, but by referral to volunteers of the Association for Protection of Victims of Criminal Acts, who may not be properly qualified. 

The trial process also does not include enough protection for victims, who have to appear in court at the same time as those who harmed them. They may have to repeatedly suffer trauma and fear as they appear in court again and again. We still have a long way to go in this respect.

Victim protection is essential for a just society, but in a society that has capital punishment, few among the public give thought of the needs of victims of crime and their families. People get the impression that it is enough to look after them by executing the perpetrator. It is only at times when people are discussing whether to retain or abolish capital punishment that victims' relatives are pushed into the limelight to back-up the call to keep the death penalty, but they still don't get the kind of support they really need. 

There is no conflict between protecting victims and abolishing capital punishment. On the contrary, abolition could well be an opportune moment to set up a proper system of victim support.

Chang Chuan-fen is a freelance writer.