While traditional victims’ advocates have aligned themselves with law enforcement, maintaining that justice should come in the form of harsh punishment of offenders, this new movement has more in common with criminal justice reformers seeking alternatives to tough sentencing policies. Grounded in research that establishes clear links between early exposure to violence and self-destructive patterns, the new victims’ advocates want to spend less on prisons and more on crime prevention, trauma care and other forms of counseling. That shift, they say, can save today’s victim from becoming tomorrow’s criminal and prisoner — and can rescue communities of color from the twin ravages of high crime and rates of imprisonment.
At the movement’s core is the belief that criminals and their most frequent victims belong to the same community, one that has long been told what brand of criminal justice is good for it. Now members of this community are announcing that they want a say in those policies.
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Increasingly, victims of crime and their surviving family members are speaking out for reconciliation, rather than retribution, in the debate over criminal justice reform. In April, about 500 people gathered at the Convention Center in downtown Sacramento, California for the annual Survivors Speak Conference. The conference, organized by Californians for Safety and Justice (CSJ), a Public Welfare Foundation grantee, has become an important measure of the increasing recognition that crime survivors should be included in discussions about criminal justice reform and that, very often, perpetrators, victims and survivors come from the same communities, and even the same families. They were seeking not only more services to help them heal, but more resources for the violence-plagued communities that have been hit hardest by crime and incarceration.
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The idea of mobilizing crime survivors for criminal-justice reform may sound obvious, but it’s not—or, at least, it hasn’t been. Lenore Anderson, the executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, once worked at the district attorney’s office in San Francisco. There, she said, “I experienced communities under siege from violence—from cycles of violence—where there were little to no resources to address it.” She’d seen much the same in her earlier work with incarcerated youth, who often had long histories of prior victimization. When Anderson went on to create Californians for Safety and Justice, in 2012, she knew she wanted this insight to be part of the group’s mission. By bringing perspectives like Thomas’s into the conversation about criminal-justice reform, the organization could challenge the assumption that crime victims unanimously favor “tough on crime” laws as the best path to safer neighborhoods. She also saw it as a way to insure that “those who have been historically underrepresented” get heard in debates over public safety. “Every human being who has experienced victimization deserves a voice and a chance to be protected from repeat harm,” she said.
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In our work with crime survivors in California, we have encountered countless small nonprofits working on the frontlines of violence in their communities. Often started by a victim of crime, these grassroots groups know their target populations intimately, as well as their risk factors and needs. Even small investments in their work will have a tremendous impact in linking more survivors to the services that can help them to recover and avoid future harm. That is why we and partners in California—and beyond—will be advocating that the federal government ensure that a small percentage of the new VOCA fund go to community nonprofits working with and on behalf of survivors, especially those in communities of color. I know first hand that victim services never reached the families of my friends who were killed by violence. That sad fact drives my work to change outcomes for other individuals and families affected by crime, not just as a better response to crime but also a strategy to prevent it.
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That May weekend four years ago started like most: I hoped to see my son but needed to go to work. In fact, it was the Saturday before Mother’s Day, and he’d already called to say that he was driving down to see me for the occasion—he had something special for me, he said.
His voice was excited, which made me smile. I was happy that my 24-year-old child, with a daughter of his own, still made time for his mom.
But we didn’t get to see each other that Saturday evening, and I went to bed unsettled, unsure what our plans were for Mother’s Day.
I got the call in the middle of the night from the hospital. At first, I thought they were calling about my sister, who had been in the hospital recently. They weren’t. They were calling to tell me that my son had been shot. And by the time I got there, he was dead.
Cheri Burks is a longtime resident of Camden, N.J. After her son’s death, she founded United Mothers Stand to help grieving mothers deal with the loss of a child. The organization partners with the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a national network of crime survivors that advocates replacing prison spending with investments in community health, treatment, and prevention.
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