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To Truly Reform Criminal Justice, Policy Makers Must Listen to Crime Survivors

August 31, 2016

The 2016 election campaign season has exposed the deep and bitter divides in our political system. Candidates have put forth vastly different views, and the list of what they agree on seems to be getting shorter by the day. Yet criminal justice reform has become that rare thing — an issue on which many Democrats and Republicans can agree.

Criminal_justice_for_PhilanTopicState and federal policy makers are in the midst of an important conversation about how to reform the criminal justice system. After decades of growth in prison populations and prison spending, it is a conversation that is long overdue. Notably absent from this dialogue, however, are data or research on crime victims' experiences with the criminal justice system or their views on safety and justice policy. Given that politicized perceptions of the best way to protect victims has, in part, driven prison expansion, this absence is glaring. Now is the time to correct the misperceptions that drove the failed policies of the past in order to truly reform the system.

A primary goal of the justice system is to protect and help victims, so any reform effort must incorporate the voices of the victims themselves. That's why the Alliance for Safety and Justice decided to conduct a national survey of crime victims, including those who have suffered extreme violence such as rape or the murder of a family member.

While one might expect victims to overwhelmingly support the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach, we found something different. Victims were clear that rehabilitation and crime prevention, not more incarceration, is needed to ensure that fewer people become victims of crime.

Nearly three out of four victims we surveyed told us they believe that time in prison makes people more rather than less likely to commit another crime. Two out of three victims support shorter prison sentences and increased spending on prevention and rehabilitation over long sentences. And by a two-to-one margin, a majority of those surveyed were in favor of policies that emphasize rehabilitation over punishment. Crime survivors also overwhelmingly support investments in new safety priorities that can stop the cycle of crime, such as programs for at-risk youth, mental health treatment, drug treatment, and job training. These views cut across demographic groups, with wide support across race, age, gender, and political party affiliation.

Today, more than 2.2 million people are locked up in our nation's prisons and jails, at an annual cost to taxpayers of more than $80 billion. Despite these staggering figures, research shows there is no reliable link between higher levels of incarceration and reduced crime; that long prison sentences are ineffective at reducing recidivism; and that over-incarceration has contributed to heightened racial disparities as well as an increase in child poverty. In other words, the conventional approach to criminal justice has done little to improve public safety.

Currently, no state regularly conducts state-level analyses of crime victims' experiences. This represents a profound gap in knowledge, considering that most criminal justice policy making — and the majority of prison spending — occurs at the state level. That's why in states across the country we are reaching out to local leaders and partnering with community groups, law enforcement, faith leaders, and others to put forth new priorities informed by crime survivors. 

Lenore_alexander_for_PhilanTopicFor too long, when we have talked about safety it has been a conversation about the need to build more prisons and incarcerate more people. We know that hasn't worked to help the majority of crime victims or the communities most impacted by crime and violence. To advance the interests of victims and public safety and stop the cycle of crime, lawmakers should take bold action to reduce incarceration and invest in prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation.

Lenore Anderson, an attorney with extensive experience working to improve our criminal justice system, is founder and president of the Alliance for Safety and Justice and founder and executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice

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