When examining the propagation of tough on crime policies, particularly at the state level, certain crime victim advocates have played a powerful role. These victim organizations and activists have created the emotional impetus for the passage of tough on crime policies and have become the de facto representatives of the victims’ perspective among the media and policymakers. What usually goes unnoticed in criminal justice policy debates is the absence of the diversity of victims’ perspectives. The communities most impacted by crime and violence—low-income communities, communities of color, and women—are rarely taken into consideration by these high-profile victim advocates. The most dominant voices among victim advocates do not reflect the full spectrum of victim experiences and perspectives and are advancing a narrow policy agenda that has actually damaged some communities.
Ironically, the communities most victimized by crime and violence are also the communities most devastated by the policies of mass incarceration. It is in these same communities where very different perspectives can be heard from victims of crime. There are large numbers of victims who have strong critiques of how mandatory minimums and tough on crime policies have done little to make their communities safer. It is this segment of victims and survivors of crime whose perspectives are rarely elevated in policy debates: people who do not want what happened to them to happen to other people but believe the answer is a criminal justice system focused on prevention rather than punishment.
The voice of victims who want a different approach to public safety than the status quo has been mostly untapped by traditional criminal justice reform advocates: organizations and activists who primarily focus on challenging the policies that lead to mass incarceration or who focus on the negative and disproportionate impact of criminal justice policies on communities of color. These criminal justice reform organizations have more often alienated victim-oriented groups who could be potential allies, underscoring a range of tensions both real and perceived that have prevented collaborative engagement between groups working on a criminal justice reform agenda and victims who share some of their critiques. As a result, individual advocates and organizations on both “sides” have been stuck in oppositional stances instead of tapping into the power and potential of collaborative relationships and a more holistic analysis.
This paper contends that criminal justice reform organizations must develop a vision for change that benefits people directly harmed by crime and should collaborate with, if not incorporate, crime victims and victim service providers into their advocacy work. Given the power that tough on crime-oriented victim advocates have played in shaping public safety policy, it is hard to imagine that lasting and substantial change can be created without elevating an equally authentic but more progressive voice of crime victims. But in order for criminal justice reform organizations to build productive alliances with victim advocates, criminal justice reform groups cannot engage in this work as a tactic or think about victims as tools. True success will come from organizations developing a more holistic analysis that includes bringing real benefits to people directly harmed by crime.
Building a system focused on prevention that more adequately supports survivors of crime and violence hardly conflicts with progressive critiques of the current criminal justice system. But incorporating the concerns of crime survivors and victims into a progressive criminal justice reform agenda will take work to shift analytical issue frames, goals, language, and organizational culture. The rewards for taking this step will be plentiful, ranging from increased credibility, a larger and more powerful base of support, the decreased power and influence of a key tough on crime lobby, and the ability to change a broken criminal justice system in ways that truly benefit all the people most impacted: survivors of crime, people convicted of crime, and the families of both.