A new vision for crime victims

A new vision for crime victims
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By the chairs of the Downstate Coalition for Crime Victims and the Downstate Coalition Racial Justice and Legislative Committees

Christopher Bromson, Erin Eastwood, Michael Polenberg, Kimberly Sanchez, Danielle Sered, and Susan Xenarios

Many actions are taken in the name of crime victims. Members of government shape policy and make budget allocations based on their beliefs of what victims want. Public officials often win or lose positions based on their interpretations of what is best for victims and perpetrators of crime. While we operate under the assumption that the intentions of those individuals are good, there is no denying that a large divide exists between the public rhetoric around what victims want and the realities of what they say when they are asked.

In an effort to bridge this gap, The New York State Downstate Coalition for Crime Victims, together with victims themselves, brought together people with decades of collective experience working with victims to articulate a vision of what victims want. The Downstate Coalition for Crime Victims is a collective of service providers, victims' advocates, survivors, community-based programs, government agencies and elected officials in the five boroughs of New York, Nassau, Rockland, Suffolk, and Westchester counties. We are committed to improving the lives of crime victims and their communities through direct services, legislative advocacy, and a commitment to social justice.

As service providers and advocates dedicated to helping secure safety, healing, and justice for all victims of crime, the Downstate Crime Victims Coalition developed the following statement, which summarizes our understanding of what survivors* want in the aftermath of the harm they experience.

While this statement aims to be both clear and linear, we know that healing processes are not. We also know that many people experience harm in a variety of forms and over an extended period. What survivors want and need changes over time, and most will experience a wide range of feelings, all of them legitimate, including anger, shame, guilt, rage, loss, peace, and empowerment. As a result of surviving harm, many people experience periods of great darkness. But victims do no not want a system to cater only to the darkness. They want a system that helps bring them and others to a better place.

We know that victims want to live in safer neighborhoods, not just to be kept safe from specific people. They want the resources to rebuild their lives. They want to be able to protect and care for their families. They want for others what they want for themselves: to be safer, happier, and more whole. They want justice, but they do not always want justice in the forms that exist now.

We know that a society that delivers on its promise to help all survivors heal and feel safe cannot rely exclusively on the criminal justice system to do so. Not all victims choose to or are able to engage in that system to get what they want and need. Biases based in race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, HIV status, language, ability, and criminal history should not, but often do, affect how people and systems respond to survivors of harm. What is more, the criminal justice system is inherently reactive, and many people want more than that: they want prevention, and they want investments in the kinds of services and strategies that will make it less likely that others will go through what they experienced.

Finally, while victims want to be respected as decision-makers about what should be done in the aftermath of the harm they survive, they also want their voices heard on a systemic level. They want policy and practice to reflect their needs and their wisdom. At the Downstate Coalition, we believe that all people who have been harmed deserve to be heard--including those who are angry, those who are forgiving, those who are in pain, those who have healed, those who want systemic change, those who have themselves caused harm, and those whose voices we have not yet heard and elevated, and whose insight stands to help us imagine a better way forward for us all.

We offer the following statement of our vision for what victims want. While it reflects decades of our working closely with survivors, we know it will evolve--as it should--as we continue to listen to the survivors we serve.

1) Survivors/Victims want recognition of and an end to racial bias and inequity in the criminal justice system, other institutions, and society as a whole.

2) Survivors/Victims want safety secured for themselves and others in the immediate and long term: they want the harmful behavior to stop and they do not want to be re-victimized.

3) Survivors/Victims want validation that what was done to them is wrong. They want safe options to disclose what happened to them. They do not want to be judged or blamed. Some want the opportunity to speak out about what happened, including at times addressing the person who harmed them.

4) Survivors/Victims want access to high-quality comprehensive, trauma-informed, culturally competent, language accessible services to help them and their families heal.

5) Survivors/Victims want access to safe temporary, transitional, and permanent housing.

6) Survivors/Victims want the option to stay connected, without stigma, to their communities. They want to be able to choose whether or not to relocate housing, employment, and education.

7) Survivors/Victims often want opportunities for economic empowerment and self-sufficiency, including meaningful employment.

8) Survivors/Victims want substantial investments in services and institutions in society that will prevent violence from happening in the first place.

9) Survivors/Victims want the people who harm them to be held meaningfully accountable. Many survivors/victims find the criminal justice system, including incarceration, to be inadequate and/or counter-productive to that end.

10) Many survivors/victims want people who commit harm to have access to the services they need to stop hurting themselves and others.

11) Survivors/Victims want to be acknowledged and respected as experts on their own experience by every institution they and their loved ones encounter. They want these institutions to respond to their needs, take their input seriously, and uphold their dignity and safety at all times.

*In this statement, we use "survivors," "victims," and "people who have been harmed" interchangeably. We know that not all people who are harmed identify with one or even any of these terms, so we vary our language to try to reflect as many people's experiences and identities as possible.

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