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Opinion: Working Together to Prevent Cycles of Harm

U.S. Department of Justice

By Daryl V. Atkinson, Second Chance Fellow with the Bureau of Justice Assistance at the U.S. Department of Justice

This April, during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week and the first National Reentry Week, we celebrate America’s progress in supporting both crime victims and the thousands of individuals who return to our communities every year from jails and prisons.  Only one calendar week separates the two observances, but the gulf of public perception–who society envisions as victims and perpetrators of crime–is much wider, often to the detriment of getting people the help they need.

Americans are conditioned to view victims and incarcerated people as two separate if not mutually exclusive categories. As two attorneys privileged to work on the front lines of criminal justice policy reform, each in fellowships designed to build bridges and elevate the voices of impacted communities, we understand the need to address these oversimplified notions. As two survivors of serious violent crime, we understand what is at stake.

Notwithstanding game-changing victories in law and policy on behalf of crime victims, a majority remain unserved and unseen.  Only about nine percent of victims of serious violent crime receive direct assistance from a victim service agency.  When the crime is not reported to police, the case for approximately half of these victimizations, that number drops to four percent.

A growing body of research on trauma reveals the profound implications for victims who are unable to access the help they need to stabilize their lives.  Without positive outlets and support, a victim is more likely to follow a path of self-medicating through substances or other self-destructive behavior – including involvement in the justice system – perpetuating cycles of victimization or harm.

Many of the 600,000 people released from state and federal prisons and the 10 to 12 million who cycle in and out of local jails annually were once, if not many times, themselves victims of violence. They all face tremendous challenges navigating the maze of collateral consequences that may be triggered by having a record, such as lack of access to stable housing and employment. But far less discussed is the lack of access to victim services – or the need for them in the first place.

As the country embraces meaningful second chances for people with records, it is time we also address the role that trauma may have played in their lives. The years the two of us have spent processing our experiences with violence – including our encounters with law enforcement and others capable of helping or hindering our path – and the years we’ve spent working to improve the outcomes of those whose lives touch the system as victims or perpetrators, have landed us at a similar set of questions.

How can the victim assistance field find new ways to reach the underserved?  How many do not feel comfortable reporting crime or being labeled as victim, or feel incapable of being seen as one in the first place?  How does the unaddressed trauma of incarcerated people impact their ability to successfully reenter society?  How do those victimized in the past, including those who use drugs or harmed others to feel control or safe in the world, get a second chance at healing or stability in the future?

We believe in naming these hard questions, and working for better answers and futures for all.  The Department of Justice is already taking bold steps to meet the needs of underserved victims with records, and in support of those at risk.  In 2015, the Office for Victims of Crime funded 12 demonstration sites throughout the country seeking to improve responses to male survivors of violence, particularly boys and young men of color.  Though young black and brown men represent some of the highest rates of victimization, they are far more likely to end up incarcerated than in a victims services program.  By providing survivor-centered strategies, peer-learning, cross-training, and robust program evaluation, this initiative will not only touch lives but yield valuable insight into what is effective, what is being missed, and why.

OVC is also working to launch a post-conviction advocacy project with the American Bar Association that will provide training and technical assistance to help vacate convictions for survivors of human trafficking.  In other words, sometimes a cutting-edge victim services program and a cutting-edge reentry program are the same thing.

On the research side, expanded use of tools such as the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Inmate Survey on the role and extent of prior victimization, and redesign of the National Crime Victimization Survey to shed additional light on reporting and help-seeking, are just two efforts underway to create a more nuanced picture of the explicit and implicit barriers that exist or fuel cycles of vulnerability and harm.

These are just some of the examples, and together we can do more.  We can uncover more holistic data on the ways violence impacts victims’ lives.  We can address the knowledge gap in reentry, learning more about the population as a whole and looking on a granular level at what works.  Developing this body of knowledge will help policymakers and the public break down false distinctions in an overlapping world.

National Crime Victims’ Rights Week and National Reentry Week are both about progress, triumphs, and rebuilding lives.  One celebrates the collective will to treat all crime victims as worthy of healing; the other the collective will to see all who have paid their debt to society as worthy of a second chance.  This April at the Department of Justice and across the country, they have the potential to touch many of the same lives.