To Help Crime Victims, Stop the Cycle of Trauma

Our legal system focuses on punishing those who cause harm without considering what victims need, a former prosecutor writes.

Jessica Felicio | Unsplash

To Help Crime Victims, Stop the Cycle of Trauma

Our legal system focuses on punishing those who cause harm without considering what victims need, a former prosecutor writes.

In 1993, my father was the victim of a brutal assault as part of a robbery. He survived with a traumatic brain injury that left him incapacitated and unable to work for years. Our family found itself in a crisis.

Perhaps because I wasn’t there when my father was attacked, and I was never in any physical danger—and the full impact on my mother and siblings wasn’t immediately apparent—I couldn’t see that we were all survivors of violence.

It took me years to see this truth. And I am not alone.

Black people who experience violence are less likely to identify as victims or survivors. I feel this deeply and personally as a Black woman who is expected to be strong, to always persevere, and to bend but never break, no matter the circumstance. Through the organization I lead, I’ve met dozens of people who feel the same. These unrealistic expectations are one of the many ways the dehumanizing legacy of slavery persists.

Why does this matter? Why do people with those experiences need to identify as victims or survivors? Those are questions that everyone who works in or adjacent to the criminal “justice” system needs to ask, especially during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.

The quotation marks around justice are not a typo. When it comes to our legal system, our country has long equated justice with punishment. When someone causes harm, our system works to identify who caused the harm and to punish them, often severely.

Put another way, our legal system’s response to harm is to inflict more trauma and violence. We focus solely on the person who caused the harm without consideration for what the victim needs nor what the family and the community of the harm doer will go through when their loved one or neighbor is ripped from those structures.

Survivors have strong opinions about what they need in the aftermath of violence or harm. And they’re not getting it from our current legal system. The Alliance for Safety and Justice regularly surveys victims of violence and crime, and this essential trove of information has proved remarkably consistent. Just one in 10 survivors believe the criminal legal system was very helpful in providing information about recovering from crime or providing referrals to support services. Four of 10 say that the system was either very or somewhat unhelpful. And 96 percent did not receive any victim’s compensation.

We need a different approach to break the cycle of trauma and violence—cornerstones of our mass incarceration crisis. That approach must shift away from punishment, rooted in slavery and racism, toward solutions that address the needs of communities ravaged by violence. What we build must deliver healing, safety, and accountability that repairs for all parties involved in harm—including the person who caused it.

Not only was I a survivor of violence; I was also a participant in our punishment system. For 12 years, I worked as a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C. And in all my time, I never met a person who had caused harm who hadn’t been a victim first, often facing trauma and harm beginning in childhood.

And that’s why we need to do all we can to identify and support survivors. When we heal their trauma, support them and, yes, compensate them for whatever harm they’ve suffered, we help stop the cycle of trauma and violence.

Services can be inaccessible for survivors. Activists in New York are working to expand access to victims’ compensation without attaching any strings to that support, especially in marginalized communities. This is necessary because New York has statutes that make it hard for survivors to get compensation—for example, by making them cooperate with law enforcement or denying assistance for any connection to violence. These policies exclude Black people from vital support services.

New York is not an outlier. New Jersey is merging its victims’ assistance with violence prevention efforts. Minnesota is working to build the infrastructure to support victims. When elected officials support and pass this kind of legislation, they are helping to build public safety by preventing trauma from having a lasting impact.

If we value public safety as a country, we have to disrupt the cycles of violence by supporting victims and survivors, especially those living in historically overlooked and underfunded communities, whether they self-identify as victims or not. Only then will true justice provide the safety and healing we desperately need.

Jamila Hodge is the executive director of Equal Justice USA, a national organization that works to transform the justice system by promoting responses to violence that break cycles of trauma.

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