Why Institutions Focused on Punishment Rarely Prioritize Victims
The Plight of Violent Crime Victims in the United States
More than one in four Americans have been a victim of violent crime in the past decade, yet victims are often deprived of the assistance they need and deserve. Less than 10 percent of violent-crime victims in the United States receive support from victim-services agencies, while two-thirds of all victims report not receiving mental-health or financial assistance. Stricken with injury or illness due to the trauma, they face chronic stress, depression, and other health risks. Furthermore, victims often bear the financial burdens left over from deceased loved ones, exacerbating their struggles. Victims are disregarded both by the institutions meant to protect them and by advocates claiming to support them. And this disregard is felt disproportionately by low-income people, people of color, people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ community, and young people from these demographic groups. Ten years ago, the Alliance for Safety and Justice was founded to address criminal-justice reform and public safety. Since its inception, the organization has conducted interviews with over 10,000 victims who have either been directly hurt by violent or property crime or whose immediate family members have been murdered in an effort to understand their experiences and policy preferences.
The Relationship between Victims’ Rights and Tough-On-Crime Politics
Achieving tough justice for criminals has traditionally been the focus of politicians and advocates for a more punitive system. On the other hand, reformers aiming to reduce the punitiveness of the justice system tend to overlook the devastating effects of violent crime. Victims often find themselves disregarded as a result of this conflict. The tough-on-crime era exacerbated a long-standing hierarchy of harm, perpetuating discrimination along racial and socio-economic lines at every stage of the process. The system focuses on punishment and retribution with little regard for supporting victims or addressing the underlying causes of crime and violence. Despite this, research conducted by the Alliance for Safety and Justice found that victims generally prefer an approach to public safety that addresses crime at its roots, such as treating addiction, providing conflict mediation and mentorship for vulnerable youth, and offering crisis assistance for people with mental illness, among others. Victims prefer rehabilitation over tough justice, even though they have direct experience with crime and the criminal-justice system.
The Importance of Helping Victims Recover from Trauma
Victims of crime often experience chronic trauma exposure at a higher rate than any other group. To prevent individuals from resorting to crime as a defense mechanism, prioritizing trauma recovery would be much more effective in ensuring public safety. A new generation of leaders is emerging. People from communities most affected by crime are building preventative, restorative, and effective solutions. Programs such as the Brenda Glass Multipurpose Trauma Center in Cleveland have become a beacon for victims of violence. Brenda Glass herself survived a traumatic and violent experience, and she managed to overcome it and become a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, creating a trauma-services program that offers survivors hope, help, and a path to recovery. Her tenacity and dedication have 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. Here lies the crux of the issue – the power and reach of the justice system have never been more substantial, and experts’ understanding of trauma recovery has never been more varied or comprehensive. Therefore, officials need to catch up and develop policy solutions that center on protecting survivors, mitigating damage and providing them with the resources they need to heal.
Public officials must prioritize victim recovery and support victim voices if public safety is to be truly achieved. As demonstrated by Brenda Glass and the Brenda Glass Multipurpose Trauma Center, effective programs focusing on primary prevention, including addiction treatment, conflict mediation and mentorship, and crisis assistance for individuals experiencing incurable trauma are successful solutions. If we as a community can envision that there is a possibility of a different kind of existence, we will all yearn for the opportunity to make this vision come to life. Institutions that prioritize punishment while ignoring its victims will continue to foster an intricate hierarchy of societal harm, rather than a society prioritizing safety, support and opportunity for its most vulnerable members.
Keywords: trauma, recovery, help, victims, crime, violence, institutions, prevention, justice, support.
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