Prop. 47 Matters to Crime Victims

As a criminal justice researcher, the debate over Proposition 47 is of great interest to me professionally. As a crime survivor, it's also deeply personal.

Prop. 47, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, would be historic in its reclassification of six petty drug and theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, paving the way for alternatives to incarceration. The savings from reduced incarceration (estimated to be hundreds of millions of dollars annually) would then be invested into mental health and drug treatment, K-12 programs and victims' services.

Most of the public debate has centered on the six specific crimes and the appropriate response to those who commit them. This narrow line of discussion - driven by our failed mass incarceration experiment and the historically under-inclusive nature of the public safety debate - overlooks the perspective of a key stakeholder: crime victims.

Prop. 47 is groundbreaking in its commitment to using resources for victims' services. In my research with individuals and communities affected by crime, I have seen firsthand the devastation and long-lasting impacts from crime victimization - both physical and psychological. Too often, unaddressed trauma leads to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and self-medication with drugs and alcohol. These and other debilitating ripple effects leave survivors vulnerable to future harm and future victimization.

In my personal life, these are impacts I understand all too well. In addition to enduring a sexual assault many years ago, last February my work and personal life collided when, just days before a scheduled series of focus groups with repeat crime survivors, I was violently robbed and assaulted in San Francisco.

It happened quickly. A man's arm was suddenly around my neck, his hand tightly covering my mouth, the other arm covered my eyes and nose. As he and another young man forced me against a wall I heard words, but could focus only on the debilitating thought that I might endure another sexual assault. They took my bag, laptop, phone, car key, countless handwritten project notes, homemade valentines stamped for my nephews, unrecoverable photos, and a faded thank you note from my first legal services client that I carried in my wallet for 6 years. From the pavement I watched them flee to a waiting car.

It is in the ensuing months that my appreciation for Prop. 47 reached new heights. Even before the attack, with an abundance of research on underserved victims under my belt, I knew about the many barriers faced by victims trying to access services. But nothing could have highlighted this challenge more profoundly than the comparison of my own experience with that of so many others.

From the moment following my attack, I received the support I needed. A good Samaritan answered my cries, followed by a prompt, courteous response from law enforcement which never questioned my status as a victim. My health insurance afforded me care and access to counseling from a professional I felt comfortable with. My employer was understanding and accommodating while I took care of what felt like countless hassles necessary to getting back on my feet. These supports made a world of difference.

This is not the experience of most crime victims. Most victims, especially survivors of violent crimes such as gun violence, rape, and losing a loved one to homicide, do not get what I got. These survivors are more likely to be low-income, under 30 and of color. But regardless of demographics, most victims do not access the services intended for them, including compensation for medical and mental health expenses, counseling, and other services vital to recovery and mitigation of future risk. Only 14% of all victims of violence receive direct assistance from a victim service agency, and this already low number drops to 4% when the crime is unreported, which is the case for more than half of all violent crime.

The repercussions from lack of access go far beyond the crime itself. Two in three victims report experiencing anxiety, stress, and difficulty with sleeping, relationships, or work (half noting the persistence of these problems for more than six months). Many do not return to employment or education, are unable to care for their dependents, or themselves become involved in the justice system. A recent survey indicated that 94% of juvenile justice-involved youth had experienced at least one incident of violence or other form of trauma prior to their involvement in the justice system.

Investing in victims' services matters. Our current solutions are tremendously under-resourced to meet the need. Each county has a victims' services office staffed by heroic advocates who are changing lives every day. But these offices are understaffed and tremendously underfunded, often triaging to meet the needs of just those few who are able to make it through the front door. Moreover, these offices are rarely located in the communities most impacted by crime, and instead are predominantly found in the county's criminal justice system.

We can do better. The hospital-based Trauma Recovery Center in San Francisco, for example, provides a range of vital services including counseling and group therapy. It serves victims from all walks of life including those who do not report the crime. An analysis finds that 74% of those receiving services showed improved mental health, 56% are more likely to return to work, 69% are more likely to cooperate with law enforcement. Based on this success, California provides $2 million in annual grants for trauma recovery centers. This has enabled the State to support two similar locations in the Los Angeles area, but it has done nothing for survivors living in the remaining 56 counties.

Prop. 47 could change this dramatically. If passed, the required allocation to victims' services could increase by as much as $15 million. These additional funds could be invested in supporting our existing services and in replicating methods proven to help survivors recover. The initiative's even larger investment in crime-prevention programs, education, and drug and mental health treatment would assure that fewer victims are created by reducing some of the driving factors behind crime.

Prop. 47 is not a panacea for broken criminal justice policies, but it is a bold and vital step in the right direction. By directing support to victims' services, Prop. 47 will improve safety and restore dignity for those impacted by crime. In my personal and professional experience, the need for a historic victory for thousands of crime victims has never been more clear.

Heather Warnken, Esq., LL.M., is a Legal Policy Associate at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy, UC Berkeley School of Law. She lives in San Francisco.