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Perspectives From the Commissioner on Alternative Models for Prosecuting Offenders

NCJ Number
Gillian Calvert
Date Published
May 2003
5 pages
This paper presents the author's views as a Children's Commissioner in Australia regarding how the criminal justice system can be improved to reduce the stress on child victims/witnesses in child sexual assault cases.
The criminal justice system must change the way it views child witnesses and provides mechanisms that reduce the stress involved in children's testifying. Any changes, however, must be carefully considered and must be based on evidence of their effectiveness, which means they not only serve the interests of child victims/witnesses but also maintain the rights of the accused. In the last two decades in Australia, especially in New South Wales, there have been significant efforts to better accommodate child and adolescent victims/witnesses in the criminal justice system. There are now alternative mechanisms for children to give evidence, such as closed-circuit TV, so as to minimize the stress of a formal court process. Rules that previously required judges to give warnings to juries regarding the uncorroborated evidence of children have been abolished. Cooperation across agencies has reduced duplication in child interviews. In the discussion of alternative models for the management of child sexual abuse cases, there has been some support for greater specialization in court processes and structures, including a proposed Child Sexual Assault Court in New South Wales. The author urges caution in adopting such an approach. He suggests that priority be given to cost-effective reforms that can be quickly implemented. These include giving child sexual assault cases priority in the court system; allowing all of a child's evidence, including cross-examination, to be given by alternative means such as closed-circuit television; and establishing a child witness service that is separate from the prosecutorial process and focuses on minimizing the stress on children of court interactions. What is needed most is a change in the court culture, such that criminal justice professionals respond sensitively and realistically to children and youth in the legal system, based on an understanding of their developmental levels and the importance of using procedures that minimize the stress of processing cases and testifying.