Could This be the Season?

By R. L. Washington and Team NIA

During this season of “thanks” and “giving,” the NIA would like for all Americans to take a solemn moment to really focus on the similarities between families as victims of crime and families impacted by the consequences of incarceration.  Second to a special occasion like a birthday or an anniversary, this time of year can drive home the dark reality of loss and suffered trauma anew – all over again. That makes us all victims in desperate need of the same antidotal formula: empathy, compassion, healing and restoration.  Yet we remain absurdly divided on opposing sides of conversations about crime, correction and cure.

Consider this excerpt from a 2016 essay published by The Urban Institute entitled What Do Victims Want from Criminal Justice Reform?

Despite billions of dollars spent annually at the federal, state, and local levels, our correctional system continues to fail us in critical ways. It falls short not just in protecting public safety, but also in restoring the well-being of victims of crime.

This was brought into sharp focus by findings from the National Survey of Victims’ Views, released this week by the Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ). In this first-of-its-kind study, researchers surveyed more than 800 victims and found that, overwhelmingly, crime survivors want a criminal justice system that prioritizes prevention and rehabilitation over punishment. Among the highlights:

  • More than half of victims—6 in 10—would prefer a system that dealt shorter prison sentences and invested more resources in prevention and rehabilitation programs. This is true even among survivors of serious violent crime.
  • Another 6 in 10 want prosecutors to consider victims’ input on what would help them recover, even when that doesn’t include a long prison sentence.
  • By a margin of about 3 to 1, victims want to hold people accountable not just through prison, but also through rehabilitation, mental health treatment, drug treatment, community supervision, and community service.

There’s a clear gap between what victims want and what our criminal justice system delivers. The past few decades of tough-on-crime policies have built a system that typically favors punishment over prevention or rehabilitation and errs on the side of over-incarceration.

Insights from some of the survivors interviewed for ASJ’s report help explain why this may be. Many worry that long prison sentences will actually make people more likely to reoffend and perpetuate cycles of violence, particularly in low-income communities of color, where rates of victimization are highest.

Instead, most victims want a criminal justice system that gives people the help they need to stop hurting others and a chance to redeem themselves. A system less focused on punishment could also redirect its resources toward providing the medical, economic, and emotional support that most victims never receive.

Perhaps moving toward a “more perfect union” compels us, or should compel us to think out of the box of old norms and redirect our emotions and reactions to the core of what victims of crime truly need to be made whole again.  When we spend time with families who are trudging through the journey of family incarceration, we frequently end up consoling them, supporting them and helping to reconstruct their futures using the same interactive strategies as if they were the victims of the crime.  That’s because they are.

Years after the horrors of the Rwanda massacres, villagers came together – those who promoted the deadly propaganda and those who wielded the machetes, alongside those who still suffered loss of limb and loved ones.  Somehow, they arrived at a common place of humanity and healing.  We uncover many of their stark stories today when trying to understand concepts of “parallel healing” and the applicable power of restoration over retribution.

We remember that George Washington first declared a formal day of celebration.  His proclamation of 1789 marked November 26th as a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer.”  Decades later, Abraham Lincoln faced with the ravages of American neighbors slaughtering each other in a great civil war, issued a somewhat enhanced federal declaration.  Lincoln was forced to grapple with reconciling the imperatives of healing and restoring as fundamental to the survival of our nation.

After the seasonal celebrations of this year, legislators will start coming together to consider new laws.  They need permission from all of us – voters, donors, consumers, constituents, to continue stepping away from the costly and outdated “lock ‘em up” mentality and into the social innovations of smart justice.  Smart justice that insures “domestic tranquility” by getting to the root of problems, correcting those errant courses, healing wounds and restoring impacted families to their full participating and contributing potential.

Prayerfully pondering that thought and the fruit of responsibility, we wish you all the happiest of this giving and reflective Holiday Season.