No, crime survivors don’t want more prisons. They want a new safety movement.

(Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post; iStock)

Lenore Anderson, president and chief executive of Alliance for Safety and Justice, and Robert Rooks, chief executive of REFORM Alliance, are co-founders of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, the nation’s largest network of crime victims.

“Build more prisons now!”

That chant rang out in April 1998 as dozens gathered in front of the California Capitol during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. The annual event, organized by victims’ political action groups, became a rally for so-called tough-on-crime policies, attended over the years by governors from both parties.

This wasn’t unique to California. For decades, the image of victims side by side with prison lobbyists and law enforcement groups advocating for more incarceration saturated the national discourse. The political strategy was unassailable: Who would disagree with these groups calling for longer and longer sentences?

There was just one problem: The majority of crime victims never actually agreed. During the height of the tough-on-crime era, criminal justice bureaucracies skillfully relied on calls for victims’ rights to win legislative changes that ratcheted up sentences and surveillance. But the mass incarceration that these changes created hasn’t helped most victims — or even reflected their policy preferences.

On the contrary, despite drastic increases in criminal justice expenditures, most survivors of violence and crime still do not receive help from the justice system. The majority of cases go unsolved, and fewer than 1 in 3 victims report receiving help to recover from crime. Even more, by a 2-to-1 margin, most victims strongly support a new approach to public safety that emphasizes prevention and treatment over excessive incarceration.

In 2012, our organization pulled together a handful of people from diverse backgrounds with a common experience as crime survivors. All of us wanted to build a new safety movement. The group talked about the missing links that had been too long ignored: a lack of support to recover from trauma, the trust gap that exists between most victims and the justice system, and the way that race impacts survivors’ experiences — while media attention surged around high-profile crimes against White victims, and survivors of color were too often confronted with a justice system that ignored, trivialized or blamed them for their experiences instead of providing real protection.

From there, we conducted outreach to survivors from different regions, and found that the need for a new approach to safety resonated widely. Despite popular conceptions of victims’ opinions on criminal justice, we found people from all backgrounds talking about how safety doesn’t come from packed prisons and thick penal codes.

A project of the Editorial Board, in conversation with outside voices.

We learned that, more than anything, what victims want is for what happened to them to never happen again. Survivors from communities experiencing the most concentrated crime know better than anyone that prisons don’t stop the cycle. Harsh imprisonment returns people unprepared for release and drains public resources that are desperately needed for urgent community safety needs — such as crisis assistance, trauma recovery, mental health and substance abuse treatment, shelters, and more. We simply cannot continue spending so much on our broken justice system and call it public safety.

From this outreach, Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice was born. Nine years later, it has grown to become the nation’s largest victims’ group, advocating for new safety priorities with more than 42,000 members.

Our members are often met with surprise in statehouses, but when they share their experiences and point out the missing safety links, heads start nodding in agreement. Our advocacy to expand trauma recovery centers has grown them to 35 locations nationwide, and we have secured public investments in violence prevention, mental health crisis response, substance abuse treatment, restorative justice and reentry programs for people leaving prison. We have also championed penal code changes to make communities safer by reducing — not increasing — incarceration.

The victims’ rights movement that swept the nation in the 1980s and ’90s achieved many remarkable reforms, from establishing the first federal office of victims of crime to giving victims a voice in the criminal court process and a right to compensation for their harms. But political strategies that have justified mass incarceration policies as “what victims want” have never represented the experiences and wisdom of most crime survivors.

In response to the unprecedented calls for change that emerged last summer, we commissioned new national research identifying what survivors across the country see as America’s biggest safety gaps. The results were consistent with what we’ve heard for the last nine years: Public safety investments should prioritize trauma recovery, violence prevention, mental health, restorative justice and reentry workforce development as the most effective strategies to stop the cycle of crime.

It’s a vision for shared safety — instead of security for some, it would help us get to safety for all.

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