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Survey Finds Crime Victims Overwhelmingly Favor Rehabilitation Over Punishment

The Alliance For Safety And Justice published the results of the first-ever survey of crime victims’ perspectives on the justice system and public safety. It sheds light on trends in victimization, as well as how victims of crime believe criminals should be held accountable.

The National Survey of Victims’ Views On Safety and Justice [PDF] comes at a critical moment, as the public and its representatives in government debate the proper reforms to the criminal justice system. It indicates crime victims favor funding education, jobs, health care, and other services over incarceration by wide margins.

A majority of crime victims indicated they wanted prosecutors to look beyond prisons for ways to hold people accountable. They prefer a focus on providing services to promote public safety in order to break the cycle of crime.

“I believe that violence is a complex issue that requires a varied and coordinated response — much like treating a cancer patient with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation,” wrote a respondent named Doris, who publicly forgave her son’s killer three days after his death. “The current criminal justice system’s one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for low-income communities of color.”

“Instead of jails and prisons, we need more emphasis on rehabilitation to help people turn their lives around,” she said.

The survey also calls attention to the ways in which the system has failed to meet the needs of people recovering from a crime. In those rare instances in which a victim does get help, it most often comes not from the justice system, but from their community.

The authors argue “this new era of reform risks failing to deliver on the breakthrough the country needs” if the United States does not seriously account for those who have experienced crime first-hand.

“I Don’t Think Knowing The Perpetrators Are In Prison Would Have Helped Me Heal”

Accurately reporting victims’ perspectives must be a central goal in reform movements to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

“Many of the shifts toward increased incarceration were accompanied by a highly politicized debate about the best way to protect public safety,” the authors write. Media and politicians have falsely portrayed crime victims as “strongly favoring tough sentencing policies and maintaining high prison rates.”

“Given the large impact of anecdotal representations of victims’ views on public safety debates,” this survey seeks to “discern the perspectives of a more comprehensive and representative group of crime victims.”

When asked, those who have actually been victims of crime signaled their support for prioritizing rehabilitation over punishment, by a two-to-one margin.

The survey featured the testimony of a woman named Luz from New York City, who is a survivor of multiple sexual assaults as a child and adolescent, committed by a family member and a family friend, and beginning at age six. The trauma and abuse led her to rely on drugs and sex for a decade to cope with what had happened to her.

Luz was able to rebound and rebuild her life with the support of family, therapy, and community—not because the people who abused her were incarcerated.

“I don’t think knowing the perpetrators are in prison would have helped me heal, and it might have added more trauma in my life because I would have had to testify against them, leaving me with the burden of breaking up my family unit,” she said.

“What I do want is for them to receive the help they need to see the impact of their actions and to value women and children, and to learn to love and be loved in healthy and appropriate ways.”

Like Luz, 61 percent of victims preferred shorter sentences to spending on incarceration, and 38 percent believed people were more likely to commit crimes in the future than be rehabilitated if incarcerated.

Eighty-nine percent of crime victims favored increased investments in schools and education over investments in prisons and jails—a fifteen-to-one margin. Eighty-three percent supported investment in mental health treatment, and 73 percent supported investing in more drug treatment over incarceration.

“We Know Hurt People Hurt People”

For every victim that advocated punishment through the system, two victims reported they prefer a focus on rehabilitation.

Young victims are the most at-risk for later becoming involved in criminal activity if their needs go unmet. The lack of support for young victims of crime has “particularly acute impacts” on their development and livelihood. Young victims of crime can “suffer from the long-term impacts of unaddressed trauma, such as difficulty with school, work, relationships and poor physical health.”

According to the government’s National Institute of Justice, young offenders most often become adult offenders when they “start offending at an early age, are chronic delinquents, and are violent offenders.” They found there was “good evidence” that “early interventions in childhood” could prevent this from occurring.

Dorothy, a woman from Pennsylvania whose son was killed in a dispute over a parking spot, wrote, “We know hurt people hurt people. To truly stem violent behavior, we have to address the root problems facing people who commit crimes so they can come back into our communities ready to make positive contributions.”

“We need to revamp the current criminal justice system to provide treatment, education, and other alternatives,” she said.

Crime Victims More Likely To Be Poor

Young people between the ages of 18 and 24 experience crime at nearly twice the rate of any other age group. They are also most likely to live in an urban area, where people are fifty percent more likely to experience crime.

Violent crime victims are most likely to be poor, young, and non-white, and people of color are nearly fifteen percent more likely to be victims of crime than white people. The rate of victimization for people whose family incomes are less than $15,000 was three times the rate of those with incomes of $75,000 or more.

Meanwhile, 35 percent of violent crime victims have been victims more than once. Nearly all victims of violent crime reported also being victims of property crime, with less than four percent reporting having experienced only violent crime.

Victims of crime are more likely to feel unsafe in their communities than those who have not been victimized. They report a diminished quality of life as a result of their victimization.

“Crime is a traumatic experience for nearly everyone who has been a victim,” the authors write. Those who suffer from repeat victimization are “more likely than other crime victims to suffer mental health problems, such as higher levels of depression, anxiety and symptoms related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”

Sixty-three percent of all victims and eight out of ten violent crime victims described the experience as traumatic. Eight-in-ten victims reported at least one symptom of trauma.

Most people who experience crime, particularly victims of violent crime, have also witnessed the victimization of others. Such experiences—such as a child who witnesses one parent engage in violence against the other—can be traumatic for an individual as well.

Help Comes From Family And Friends, Not the Criminal Justice System

The survey found two out of three victims did not receive help following the incident. Those who did receive help were far more likely to “receive it from family and friends than the criminal justice system.”

Most support for crime survivors came from friends, family, community and grassroots organizations, and health services. “Only one-in-ten victims received assistance from a district attorney or prosecutor’s office,” the survey found, “and one-in-four received help from a law enforcement agency.”

A woman from Texas named Lindsey, whose sister was killed by her husband, shared that her family “received no information, support, or a sense of collaboration with officials handling my sister’s case. In the immediate aftermath of her death, we had to struggle just to get custody of my nephew.”

“We didn’t know who to go to for information or how to get help,” she wrote. “To this day, no one in my family, except my nephew, has received counseling. But the trauma has affected us all.”

“Victims and families need help recovering from crime,” Lindsey said, but she has “come to realize that focusing too much on punishment can cause us to lose sight of the big picture.”

“Initially, I was very angry at my brother-in-law and wanted retribution. But with time, I began to think about how the system had failed us all,” Lindsey said. “My brother-in-law had substance abuse addiction issues and had been incarcerated. Did his drug addiction and experience in prison play a role in his loss of control? He’s not a bad person.”

“Public safety must be the top priority,” she continued. “But I believe we can best achieve that by helping those with substance abuse and mental health problems. Our criminal justice system should do more to help rehabilitate people like my brother-in-law instead of making them worse off and more likely to commit crimes.”

Perceptions of an unhelpful criminal justice system help explain the statistic that 54 percent of violent crimes go unreported. Property crime goes unreported most often, 63 percent of the time. People other than the victim, such as relatives or acquaintances, report a “substantial portion of reported violent crime,” the authors note.

The survey indicates that the top two reasons for not reporting crimes were “feeling that the police wouldn’t do anything” and “prosecution and courts wouldn’t do anything,” respectively.

Not a single state in the nation conducts regular analyses of victimization or seeks victims’ perspectives on how the system is working for them. “This is a profound gap,” the authors say, “particularly considering that the majority of criminal justice policy-making occurs at the state level.”

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.