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CA Policy: Beware of vigilante policymaking

There is no disputing that victims of crime deserve to have a voice in the criminal justice system.  Organizations like Crime Victims United of California (CVUC) offer an opportunity for victims to convene and access a legal system that can otherwise be difficult to penetrate.  In addition, CVUC has taken its victim advocacy to the legislature.  CVUC states it is the only organization of its kind, "and its team of expert lobbyists actively engage in the legislative process -- to ensure that victims have a voice at our State Capitol, and beyond."

A fascinating op-ed by Joshua Page in the LA Times in June, 2011, documents CVUC's "powerful voice in state politics" through its connection to the prison guards union,

The union provided the group, which consists of both a legislative advocacy arm and political action committees that endorse and provide financial backing to candidates, with seed money, office space, lobbying staff and attorneys. And Novey personally taught its leaders how to play political hardball. As Salarno once put it, Novey "steered us in the right direction, opened the door and taught us what to do. He educated us."

The legislation CVUC supports can be found on their website, and generally promotes harsher sentencing such as Three Strikes and the Death Penalty, and various laws that increase penalties and monitoring for sex offenders.  These laws almost always result in driving up incarceration rates and contributing to California's current fiscal and inhumane prison crisis.  Alternatively, CVUC often opposes bills that emphasis local rehabilitative approaches to criminal justice, something many criminal justice stakeholders now consider to be best practice. 

If CVUC's policies and agenda are rooted in punitive measures and not in what research indicates advances effective public safety, why are they such a powerful force in California's criminal justice policymaking?  Joshua Page describes the predicament well: 


When Crime Victims United turns complicated criminal justice matters into simple choices between helping and hurting victims, reasoned debate and thoughtful policymaking are necessarily constricted. Lawmakers are reluctant to oppose advocates like Salarno for fear that they will be tarred in the media and targeted in future elections. No politician wants to stand against a woman whose daughter was murdered and be deemed soft on crime. With financing from the guards, the victims group has the resources to seriously help or damage a politician's image and career.


While victims of crime deserve and should be acknowledged and supported, criminal justice policy making should not be to the detriment of public safety.  Allowing public policy decisions to be so influenced by a highly subjective and narrow set of interests, such as those of CVUC, the CCPOA, or any other special interest group, criminal justice policy makers are in danger of engaging in a sort of vigilante policymaking -- in this example, regarding the rule of victims as more important than the rule of law.  Rather, lawmakers should pursue smart on crime policies that are rooted in respected literature and data analysis.  This promotes a system that reflects accepted best practices, serving everyone in the community, including victims of crime, by promoting public safety first. 

Keywords: interest groups, Selena Teji, victims

Posted in Blog, Political Landscape

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