Listening to victims

Responding to victims is often cited as justification for harsh punishment policy. Yet this is inaccurate. A national survey and recent qualitative research paint a complex picture of crime victims that is not clearly reflected in debates on crime policy. When a representative sample of victims is surveyed about its views on crime policy, a vision for the criminal justice system that fosters the capacity for those who commit crimes to change begins to take shape. By a 2-1 margin, victims support rehabilitative over punitive responses to crime.Alliance for Safety and Justice, Crime Survivors Speak: The First-Ever National Survey of Victims’ Views on Safety and Justice (Oakland, CA: Alliance for Safety and Justice, 2016), 15,  Victims prefer state spending on mental health and drug treatment, job creation, and education over spending on prisons and jails.Ibid., 26. Perhaps most surprisingly, 60 percent of victims prefer shorter prison sentences focused on rehabilitation over longer sentences aimed at incapacitation for extended periods.Ibid., 16.  Three victims believed prison in its present form increased the likelihood of a person committing a future crime for every one victim who believed it prevented future crime.Ibid., 14. This data suggests that there is a disconnect between the widespread needs and desires of victims and the ways in which their voices have been called on to inform policy in the past. When policymakers, judges, and corrections administrators frame punitive policies as deferential to the rights of victims, they (perhaps unknowingly) distort the needs of those they are seeking to respect and honor.Robert Elias, “Which Victim Movement? The Politics of Victim Policy,” in Victims of Crime: Problems, Policies and Programs, edited by Arthur J. Lurigio, Wesley G. Skogan, and Robert Carl Davis (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 1990), 229-47.

Furthermore, victimization goes hand in hand with incarceration. A qualitative study found that many people who are sentenced to prison as adults report long histories of violence.Bruce Western, Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2018), 63-82.  These experiences begin in childhood in the form of physical and sexual abuse, typically within the home, and later occur as fighting and violence among peers in late childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. In addition to being a party to these events as victim or perpetrator, respondents had also witnessed extreme violence during childhood and into adulthood. Nearly 40 percent had witnessed the killing of another person.In addition, half had been beaten by their parents, one-third grew up amid some other type of family violence, and 16 percent were sexually abused. Ninety percent of participants reported fighting in adolescence and half had experienced a serious physical injury in childhood. Once in prison, violence continued, with 75 percent reporting witnessing an assault on another incarcerated person. Violence followed these individuals home from prison as well. In the year after prison, 50 percent of respondents witnessed an assault on another person, 25 percent had been attacked, and another 25 percent reported assaulting another person. Ibid., 67.  These experiences have long-lasting effects, contributing to chronic pain, drug use, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues, housing instability and homelessness, and educational deficits (such as dropping out of school).Ibid., 63-82. Some research has suggested that contact with the criminal justice system may actually increase the likelihood that a person will be a victim of a crime in the community.For example, in an ethnographic study of a low-income neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the sociologist Alice Goffman observed that a person who has a history of arrest, a pending case, or a probation or parole term to serve may be targeted for theft or violence because they are the least likely to seek assistance or protection from the police. Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (New York: Picador, 2015).

Recidivism Data Points