As Political Ads Fearmonger on Crime, Victims Want Alternatives

Instead of co-opting victims’ voices, political candidates and elected officials should center them.

Michael Förtsch/Unsplash

As Political Ads Fearmonger on Crime, Victims Want Alternatives

Instead of co-opting victims’ voices, political candidates and elected officials should center them.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

Crime has taken center stage in the final stretch of the midterm elections as candidates and super PACs flood the airwaves with hyperbolic and misleading attack ads designed to exploit voter fears.

Political campaigns have seized on this closing message a month after the release of the FBI’s annual crime data for 2021. These statistics were so incomplete that they couldn’t provide a reliable answer as to whether crime has remained level, decreased, or, as many of these ads have claimed, risen over the past two years. But the incomplete data picture did not dissuade political operatives from playing into fears about crime with incendiary, often racially charged messaging.

The hyperpoliticization of crime—and the lack of reliable data in debates about crime—are not new dynamics. Today’s political attacks nod toward many of the same failed solutions bandied about in the 1980s and 1990s at the height of the fear-driven “tough on crime” era. And even when decision-makers have attempted to make more reasoned and good-faith attempts to look at data to drive policy, FBI crime statistics, our main data source, are fundamentally flawed. Focusing on these statistics fails to capture what’s most important and misdirects our nation’s safety strategies. Luckily, more insightful data that could lead to new safety solutions is available from an often-ignored source: crime victims.

FBI statistics provide two main data points: the number of crimes reported to law enforcement and the number of crime “clearances,” which is essentially how many cases resulted in arrests. These are important but alone tell us very little. For starters, more than half of crimes are never reported to law enforcement. Additionally, whether a crime is “cleared” tells us nothing about whether it was actually solved.

The even bigger missing piece of the puzzle is information about people and outcomes, particularly regarding those who have been hurt.

Last month, our organization, the Alliance for Safety and Justice, commissioned a national study of crime victims. Among its unnerving revelations: For the vast majority of victims, the justice system provides neither justice nor help in the aftermath of crime. Four out of five victims who reported a crime to law enforcement said the crime was not solved, and half described the justice system as unhelpful during the investigation.

The survey also revealed a shocking gap in the government’s capacity to help victims: 96 percent of victims of violent crime did not receive victim compensation. Nearly half of those who said they wanted to relocate for safety could not. It is no wonder that many people hurt by crime report they do not trust the legal system to protect or assist them. It should be a wake-up call for lawmakers, who for too long have relied on oversimplified FBI crime statistics to come up with oversimplified prescriptions, like more policing and harsher punishment.

When we listen to victims, they tell us that we actually need proactive and healing solutions to address cycles of crime and violence. Victims do not think more arrests and incarceration work as well as prevention and healing services, like mental health care, re-entry support, crisis assistance, rehabilitation, and trauma recovery.

These preferences align with a new crop of safety programs growing across the country. Community-based organizations that respond to victims’ needs, mediate conflicts, and reduce crises are expanding. Trauma recovery centers provide services to victims in dozens of cities, which help them overcome challenges like PTSD, housing instability, and revictimization. Re-entry programs can reduce rearrest rates, and community violence prevention programs are helping to reduce shootings in numerous cities.

So as you’re bombarded with a final round of fearmongering attack ads about crime, remember that they are just one extreme example of our broken approach to public safety. To chart a better path forward, our decision-makers must engage with the people who know firsthand just how deeply flawed the current system is. Instead of co-opting victims’ voices, political candidates and elected officials should center them.

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