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  • Writer's pictureSiena Richardson

Survivors want safety, not longer sentences

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

The government prosecutes crime on behalf of itself; prosecutors emphasize that they do not represent survivors. This is for good reason: most survivors want the system to rehabilitate perpetrators, not punish or imprison them.

For decades, lawmakers have justified “tough on crime” sentencing regimes by invoking the desires of crime survivors, particularly survivors of gender-based violence. After nearly half a century of those policies, the number of incarcerated people in this country has skyrocketed, far outpacing any other country in the world. Survivors are increasingly speaking out against these policies, arguing that their interests are not served by mass incarceration.

The positioning of crime survivors against those who have committed crimes is, in itself, a fallacy. Sidney McKinney, executive director of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, says, “[t]he vast majority of people who are impacted by the criminal legal system, the vast majority of people who are incarcerated — who have committed violence offenses [sic]— are people who have experienced violence and harm . . . There’s a false dichotomy in our criminal legal system that positions a person who is considered a victim against a person who is a perpetrator. That’s not real.” This dichotomy is particularly stark in instances of gender-based violence.

The safety of survivors of gender-based violence is often invoked as justification for pro-incarceration strategies. Survivors argue that police often fail to protect survivors, subjecting them to re-traumatizing questioning and even arresting those who report violence based on allegations that they fought back. Cassandra Mensah, an attorney who represents survivors of gender-based violence, highlights this complexity: “While it's true that some survivors want their attacker imprisoned, others want access to mental health services . . . The criminal system is not designed to create survivor-centered responses to violence, to promote agency and healing in survivors, nor does it demand behavior change in the perpetrator. Like most white supremacist institutions, it is only designed to punish.”

One in four people in the United States has survived a crime in the past 10 years. Survivors are more likely to be low-income, young, and people of color. McKinney says, “people who are victims of crime are at greater risk of engaging in activities that place them at risk of incarceration later.” Nearly eighty percent of survivors say their lives are affected by the crime.

Yet, survivors report that the legal system does not provide them the help they need to recover from the impacts of victimization. Spending on the criminal legal system has exploded over the last four decades: In 1982, the U.S. spent $40 billion on the criminal legal system; In 2020, it was as high as $300 billion. But those funds are not reaching survivors: Less than one-third of survivors report receiving help. Even fewer reported receiving help from those within the criminal legal system, instead finding support in family or community. Moreover, most cases go unsolved.

Survivors’ views are in sync with those of American voters more broadly. By dramatic margins, survivors of crime believe investments should be made in crime prevention, and prefer seeking accountability through methods other than incarceration. Survivors “believe prison makes people more likely to commit crimes than to rehabilitate them.” Voters agree. Nearly eighty percent of voters support investment in community-based violence prevention programs that work to reduce incarceration. As survivors and voters across demographic groups come to consensus, it is incumbent upon lawmakers to act.

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