California Proposition 47

It's not easy to share my story. For nearly my entire life, I've had trouble admitting to myself, let alone family and friends, the sexual assaults that affected me so deeply.

But I must speak out now, as California voters go to the polls to decide the fate of Proposition 47. For the sake of other crime survivors, I sincerely hope Californians pass this common-sense measure that ends the practice of incarcerating people for low-level, non-violent offenses and then reallocates savings into victim services, mental health and drug treatment and crime-prevention programs.

Proposition 47 stands to benefit survivors of crime, and people concerned about sexual assault should especially be interested in its promise. I know from hearing survivors' stories how poorly we currently help sexual assault survivors access the trauma services that can be vital in their recovery and ability to avoid future harm. And I know this from first hand experience.

For me, the trauma began at age four. When my babysitter left our New York apartment to pick my brother up from school, she had a man who worked in the building watch me. Over the course of that year, he sexually assaulted me.

Being so young, I didn't understand what was happening or how to express it in words. I didn't tell my parents until my 30s; as it sunk in, my mother connected the dots: "That was the year the light went out in your eyes."

Like many sexually abused children, I buried the horrors deep inside. The experience destroyed my formation, and I grew up terrified of adults and children alike.

Then, at age 23, an innocent night out with a friend ended in rape. The shock of this act unearthed the ghosts from my childhood, and I found myself denying that it had happened, just to avoid the confusing emotions of fear, shame and guilt.

I didn't report the crime; I simply wanted to avoid the man and act like it never happened. In that, I am like many survivors of sexual assault.

Only half of all Californians who were raped in the past five years told the police, according to a 2013 survey of Calireport by Californians for Safety and Justice. These low reporting numbers carry two consequences: People who committed the crimes are not held accountable, and survivors don't pursue or receive trauma services.

While there are different reasons why people don't report crimes -- from fear of retaliation to shame to cultural stigma -- there is one common thing I've found in why some seek help: safety and healing. The first priority for survivors of traumatic crime is knowing they will be understood and will receive help.

I have seen firsthand with other victims -- and offenders -- how unaddressed trauma from violent acts can lead to depression, substance abuse and destructive behavior. My own experiences certainly took a toll psychologically, but fortunately someone, eventually, referred me to a trauma center. They helped tremendously, and I realized that if I had that opportunity in my childhood, I wouldn't have experienced the same terror for all those years.

Until this year, California had only one Trauma Recovery Center, located in San Francisco. The joint project between UCSF and San Francisco General Hospital streamlines various services under one roof for anyone who has experienced trauma -- whether they've reported that crime or not.

Their services are confidential, sensitive to the cultural background and needs of the person, and everything from their location to their materials and staff help them reach the very people who too often remain in the shadows after a crime. People who use the Trauma Recovery Center also cooperate with law enforcement at greater rates, which is a step forward in reporting -- and stopping -- crimes.

Since last year, California has provided $2 million in grants in order to open two new centers in Los Angeles. That's a step forward, but much, much more is needed to help the thousands of individuals and families who are sexually assaulted each year in California.

Enter Proposition 47. The "Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act" would reduce certain nonviolent offenses (e.g., drug possession, petty shoplifting, etc.) from felonies that can bring prison sentences to misdemeanors that bring county jail time, supervised probation, treatment or other forms of accountability. This will prioritize space in our crowded jails and prisons and, importantly, save $750 million billion over five years, according to a state agency.

These savings will be allocated to amongst K-12 program, mental health and drug treatment, and victims' services. Specifically, $75 million in new funds could be available for victims' services within five years. If $2 million opened two new trauma recovery centers, imagine what $75 million would mean?

I have heard ridiculous claims by those who oppose Prop. 47 that changing simple drug possession offenses to misdemeanors would lead to sexual assault. Such claims reveal a real lack of understanding about both sexual assault and prosecutors' ability to go after such crimes.

Voters should look past these scare tactics and toward a justice system that prioritizes recovery and prevention. That is what Prop 47 offers.

I know firsthand that, with the right help, I was able to replace the darkness in my life with light.
But most survivors of sexual assault and traumatic crimes still have too many barriers to reporting and recovery. Proposition 47 is a chance to replace these barriers with new funding -- and renewed light in the lives for survivors.