Near the end of a 2022 midterm election season in which Democrats resorted denialism when confronted by Republicans' weaponizing voters’ fear of rising crime, former-prosecutor-turned-reform advocate Lenore Anderson proffered a more coherent strategy.
In her new book, ”In Their Names: The Untold Story of Victims’ Rights, Mass Incarceration, and the Future of Public Safety,” Anderson writes,
"Just as we cannot attain safety through mass incarceration, we also cannot end mass incarceration by reducing incarceration alone. While justice reform efforts often focus on reduced incarceration as the top metric, that is severely inadequate. Ending the legacy of mass incarceration cannot happen without actually providing everyone a meaningful and attainable right to safety."
Anderson argues for a reimagined crime victims’ movement that marries standard criminal-justice reforms with enhanced crime-victim care and alternative modes of providing real public safety, writes Mark Obbie in Vital City.
Anderson writes, “Providing victims of violent crime with meaningful help in recovering from the wide-ranging life effects of trauma renders them more stable, healthier and safer, as well as more trusting of a justice system that connected them to a center that made sure they did not have to face the justice system alone.”
Much of her book centers on a critique of what went wrong with that original movement. It boils down to the “cardinal sin” of linking most victim compensation and services to the prosecution of crimes. While that could make for compliant witnesses, it excludes the majority of crime victims, because most crimes are never reported or prosecuted.
“Victims’ rights became the moral justification for expanding criminal justice power, but the resulting criminal justice bureaucracies have been largely incapable of providing protection and help to most victims of crime,” she writes.
The system worked for a vocal, privileged minority of victims and survivors, but not generally for people of color and people living in poverty who didn’t meet standards of victim perfection.
What if the silent majority of crime victims — including those with complicated relationships with the law — could make themselves heard on the policies they’d prefer over abusive policing and excessive punishment?
That became Anderson’s focus, first at Californians for Safety and Justice and then at the Alliance for Safety and Justice. After leading the push in 2014 for California’s Proposition 47, which lowered penalties for many offenses, Anderson and the Alliance have helped organize campaigns to launch publicly funded trauma care centers in multiple states.
They have convinced five states so far to ease restrictions on victim aid that bar help to people with criminal records or who are deemed uncooperative or complicit.
Echoing the public-health approach of street-outreach programs that use violence interrupters to halt the viral spread of violence, Anderson argues for embracing young people who have survived chronically traumatic environments.
Will this enlightened approach to victim services survive the recent surge in gun violence — and the resulting tough-on-crime backlash?
By assuming that any attention paid to increases in violence will feed the tough-on-crime policy machine, the political left plays into the hands of right-wing critics, ceding to them the high moral ground of expressing care for Black victims’ lives, Obbie writes.
Anderson and her backers can change the terms of the debate, seizing the crime-victim banner by showing that more effective care for more crime victims — especially those historically shunned as part of the problem — constitutes crime prevention without the baggage of traditional punitive measures.
Perhaps the biggest question mark about Anderson’s prescriptions is whether a more complete body of evidence will prove the effectiveness of community-based violence prevention programs and trauma-informed services to lower crime.
Anderson’s ideas have logic and racial equity on their side, Obbie says. If politicians can be so easily stampeded from one policy extreme to another, maybe it is time to replace top-down ideas with bottom-up solutions — and to ground the politics of crime in a set of arguments voiced by the people from the communities with the most skin in the game.