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The People Most Ignored by the Criminal-Justice System

More than one in four Americans have been a victim of violent crime in the past decade, but few were able to get the help they deserve. Less than 10 percent of violent-crime victims get assistance from victim-services agencies, and two-thirds of all victims report never receiving mental-health or financial assistance. Many suffer further, losing their jobs due to injury, accumulating insurmountable medical debt, and assuming financial burdens left over from deceased loved ones—all while facing the health effects of the traumas they have suffered, such as chronic and debilitating stress, hypervigilance, depression, and insomnia.

In battles over U.S. crime policy, victims are rarely anyone’s priority. Advocates for a more punitive system focus on strengthening the power and reach of criminal-justice agencies, stressing strict punishments and more arrests. Reformers trying to reduce the system’s punitiveness, for their part, tend to gloss over the devastating consequences of violence as they focus on slashing incarceration. Victims are lost in this shuffle, disregarded both by the institutions meant to protect them and many of the advocates claiming to support them.

And the disregard is not felt evenly. Low-income people and people of color, as well as people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ community, are more likely to be repeatedly hurt by violence and less likely to garner victim assistance. Young people from these demographic groups are particularly affected. The most harmed are the least helped.

Ten years ago, I founded the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a national organization that works to advance public safety and criminal-justice reform. We have conducted interviews with representative groups of victims across the country about their experiences and policy preferences. Since our start, we’ve surveyed more than 10,000 victims—that is, people who have either been directly hurt by violent or property crime or whose immediate family members have been murdered. We found that most victims prefer an approach to public safety that addresses the problem at its roots—say, by treating addiction, offering conflict mediation and mentorship for vulnerable youth, or providing crisis assistance for people with mental illness—and prepares people with convictions for reintegration and law-abiding citizenship. Victims are generally no tougher on crime than nonvictims; they prefer rehabilitation over tough justice, even though they’ve had firsthand experience with crime and the criminal-justice system.

That research stands in stark contrast to common wisdom. At first glance, victims’ rights and tough-on-crime politics might seem like natural bedfellows. In the 1970s, victims’ advocates expressed frustration with an unresponsive justice system, and prosecutors and police complained that defendants had more rights in court than victims did. Plenty of real-world examples showed victims being ignored: Many surviving family members whose loved one had been murdered never received return phone calls from detectives, and many victims of sexual assault were turned away when they reported what had happened—or were berated by courtroom lawyers in the few cases police pursued. So, the line of reasoning went, it was urgent to give victims more influence in court proceedings, roll back the rights of the accused, and aggressively pursue punishment. Media coverage of violent crimes (commonly when victims were white and middle-class) fueled these sentiments, as politicians, at times joined by understandably distraught victims’ families, called for maximum punishments. States built more prisons, ratcheted up sentence lengths, and expanded budgets for police, probation, courts, prosecutors, and sheriffs. The bureaucratic agencies that make up the U.S. criminal-justice system went from relative political insignificance to a behemoth set of institutions that had the capacity to influence elections and advocate for sweeping legislation.

During the tough-on-crime era, President Ronald Reagan, who once called victims “forgotten persons,” enacted a range of federal budgetary and legislative reforms that led to a drastic increase in the U.S. incarceration rate. In response to high-profile homicides, President Bill Clinton championed sentencing policies such as “three strikes and you’re out.” Wide-net surveillance, militarized police agencies, pretrial detention, and harsh prison sentences and conditions became standard.

These changes were popular but focused on punishment and retribution with little regard for helping victims or alleviating the deeper common causes of crime and violence. And this is what does set victims apart from nonvictims: They know intimately how poorly our system supports those who have been hurt by crime. Even though the law-and-order agenda birthed new victims’ rights, it also exacerbated a long-standing hierarchy of harm: Victims face discrimination along racial and socioeconomic lines at every stage, affecting which crimes get the most media and political attention, which victim-compensation applications are approved, which cases receive the most thorough investigation, and which victims are treated with dignity by police, prosecutors, and medical personnel. As the power and reach of the justice system grew, so did discrimination and disregard.

Additionally, ignoring victims can perversely result in more crime. I saw this firsthand when, fresh out of law school in 2001, I began working with parents of incarcerated youth, who were virtually all low-income people of color. Almost every young person I encountered had been a victim long before they were ever arrested for committing a crime—a phenomenon is all too common for both youths and adults entering our justice system. One teenager had been jumped so many times on the way to school that he stopped going. Another was placed in foster care after suffering sexual abuse at home, only to be sexually abused again in the foster-care system. Others had lost siblings to homicide or been robbed or assaulted numerous times. Most of these kids hadn’t received any help to cope with PTSD, anxiety, and near-constant fear.

Study after study spanning the course of the past 30-plus years has demonstrated that people in the justice system have among the highest rates of chronic trauma exposure of any group. A 2014 study found that more than half of the men incarcerated in a high-security prison reported being victimized in at least one violent traumatic event, such as being robbed or assaulted, and nearly all had experienced some kind of trauma in their lives. Incarcerated women, too, have extremely high rates of prior victimization. Another 2014 study, for example, found that 53 percent of a sample of women incarcerated in urban and rural jails have had PTSD, compared with 10 percent of the general population. Helping people recover long before they resort to crime would almost certainly do more for public safety than locking them up after they traumatized someone else.

A lot has changed since I was a young lawyer in the 2000s. The perils of mass incarceration have been well documented and hotly debated. Politicians and the public now broadly accept that the United States has a criminal-justice problem. Over the decade of declining crime rates preceding the coronavirus pandemic, policy makers from both sides of the aisle embraced a range of reforms to reduce incarceration. But after COVID hit and gun-related homicides spiked in 2020, candidates began demanding a return to “law and order.” Even as attitudes regarding criminal justice shift, public officials continue to overlook the needs, experiences, and preferences of people being hurt the most by crime. If public safety were truly the goal, and victim voices really mattered, healing trauma would be a more important focus.

A new generation of leaders is emerging. People from communities most affected by crime are building preventative, restorative, and effective solutions. The Cleveland native Brenda Glass was only 13 years old the first time she became a victim of violence. She was raped at gunpoint by a group of men she knew and trusted. Unable to find help for the fear and anger she felt, she sought protection in a group of older teens and adults who also abused her and coerced her to carry out crimes. Being imprisoned led to more hopelessness. After a police officer told her she needed spiritual help, not more jail time, she promised herself that she’d escape the cycle. She became a licensed clinical social worker and a psychotherapist and, in 2017, launched Cleveland’s first trauma-services program of its kind for victims. The need was so great that in 2020 she cashed out her retirement funds and poured all of her savings into creating the Brenda Glass Multipurpose Trauma Center. Since then, she has helped hundreds of survivors of gun violence, domestic violence, and sexual assault get therapy, find jobs, and obtain permanent housing. All of the services are free. “We help victims heal,” Glass told me, “through the long process of recovering in all aspects of their lives.” She also joined my organization as a volunteer member and has been advocating to expand these kinds of victim services across Ohio.

Glass’s center is one of more than 50 similar trauma-recovery programs across the country offering a one-stop model of services for victims. “People want to recover,” Glass said. “People, whether they are victims or perpetrators, need hope. Rarely do we give people that vision. If you can envision that there is a possibility that your life can be different, you will reach for it. Hope is the key. That’s what we provide—to everyone.” Programs like Glass’s are the most promising development of the past decade when it comes to solving the dual crises of increasing violence and a broken justice system. Politicians need to catch up.

Lenore Anderson
The Atlantic

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