Real Criminal Justice Reform Requires Listening to Those Most Commonly Impacted by Crime

05/21/2015 10:21 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016

Growing political unity on the Left and Right on the need for criminal justice reform is an important development. But if bipartisanship fails to incorporate the experiences and voices of those previously ignored, it won't lead to the breakthrough we need.

We've seen bipartisan agreement on criminal justice before: Democratic and Republican lawmakers together drove the explosion of prisons and prisoners across the United States over the last 30 years.

Often "tough-on-crime" politics took place in the name of those rightfully considered the most important stakeholder in the public safety debate: victims of crime. Ever increasing sentences were sold as the best way to protect crime victims and keep communities safe.

Ironically, however, most crime victims have never actually been the center of attention, nor were their experiences and needs thoroughly considered as penal codes and prisons grew.

Despite the popularity of pro-victim rhetoric during the prison-building era, few have asked, let alone answered, some simple questions about victims. Who experiences crime? Who is most vulnerable to being repeat victims of crime? What do survivors need to recover and be protected from harm?

At Californians for Safety and Justice, we have led two years of inquiry to answer these questions. And last month, we brought hundreds of crime survivors from across California to the State Capitol to share their experiences and discuss justice policy for our second annual Survivors Speak conference.

Some notable public figures are taking notice. California's Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom and singer/songwriter John Legend addressed our survivor attendees, delivering messages of hope and calling for change. Survivors Speak was the second stop on Mr. Legend's listening and learning tour he launched as part of his new #FREEAMERICA campaign to end over incarceration.

Other speakers included law enforcement officials and crime survivors from across California. Their shared experiences, along with data we've gathered, shatters the old narrative about victims and points to the urgent need for a new approach to safety and justice.

For example, while one in five Californians experience crime, its impact is also concentrated and unequal. The majority of crime victims lives in lower-income communities, and repeat victimization is even more concentrated.

Two out of three crime survivors reported being victimized more than once in the last five years. Many repeat victims have long histories of suffering multiple types of victimization, such as sexual exploitation, abuse or community violence. Worse still, only a small number of survivors receive any help, despite often experiencing severe depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of crime.

When it comes to violent crime, those most likely to be repeatedly victimized are young people of color, especially African American and Latino males. When policymakers think of the victims' rights movement, youth of color may not be the first image that leaps to mind. But the facts suggest that it should be.

Young people of color from low-income communities bear an unconscionably disproportionate burden of violence and crime - victimized at staggering rates and also the least likely to get access to help to recover from trauma. Most frequently victimized, least often supported. There is something terribly wrong with this picture.

David Guizar knows this picture well. Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, his older brother - and father figure - was shot and beaten to death when David was 10. He never learned what happened, nor did his family learn about any services available to survivors of violent crime.

David felt lost after this, with his family broken. He filled the void with alcohol and drugs for decades, finally getting sober in 2006. Then, in 2012, another one of David's brother was killed when a stranger tried to enter a family wedding.

The traditional approach to victims' rights is has focused on toughening punishments for people convicted of crime and strengthening the rights of victims during criminal proceedings. Procedural rights for victims are critical, and accountability for people who commit crime is an essential component of an effective criminal justice system.

The fact is, however, many victims never get to a courtroom. National statistics reveal that nearly half of criminal activity goes unreported, cutting off any possibility of a prosecution. And less than half of crimes that are reported result in a criminal prosecution. So focusing only on criminal proceedings leaves out the experiences and needs of the majority of crime survivors.

It is hard to confront these facts without concluding that we must fundamentally rethink our priorities for advancing safety and justice. Packed prisons and extreme sentencing for the fraction of crimes that result in a conviction depletes the very resources needed to improve victim protection and community safety.

We need to rethink what investments can serve and protect as many victims as possible, including the communities most impacted by crime. We should pay special attention to the needs of those at greatest risk of being repeatedly victimized.

When victims go without trauma recovery support, they face great risk of being victimized again and falling through the cracks in life -- dropping out of school, suffering health problems, self-medicating to the point of addiction, and even turning to crime themselves.
To truly protect victims, we must invest in trauma recovery, mental health treatment, trauma-informed health services, safe places to go when crisis erupts, family support programs, and economic recovery assistance. We also need to improve the relationship between police, prosecutors and the communities they serve, so that victims trust - and can safely cooperate with - law enforcement to solve more crimes.

It is also imperative to reshape our public conversation about crime victims to include the diverse voices that have been ignored for too long. One of the most powerful lessons we've learned working with diverse survivors is a kicker: in addition to suffering from a lack of support to recover from crime, most survivors also think our current justice system investments are unwise. Two out of three California victims surveyed believe bloated prisons either make inmates better at committing crimes or have no impact on crime at all. And most survivors want greater investments into rehabilitation, mental health treatment and prevention over bigger prisons and jails.

So listening to survivors can tell us a lot how we should reform our safety and justice systems. The growing unity on the need for change across party lines and from leaders in politics and culture, is a critical opportunity to do what policymakers failed to do the first time criminal justice became a national spotlight issue.

We must embrace crime survivors as unexpected advocates for justice reform. Its time to stop pretending that building more prisons protects crime victims and instead advance a new victims' movement that listens to and supports the people and communities most impacted by violence and crime. With this, we can win new safety priorities that protect and serve everyone.