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April 23, 2013 victims’ rights rally in Sacramento.

Steve Rhodes/​Flickr

Flipping through this year’s proposed criminal justice legislation, it is hard to miss Crime Victims United (CVU), a seemingly-omnipresent victims’ rights group that registers strong support for tough-on-crime legislation and adamant opposition to bills seeking to reform sentencing laws or reduce incarceration. Their stance is in line with the conventional wisdom that victims want vengeance and favor a punitive approach to criminal justice. But despite CVU’s dominance in the media and in Sacramento, a new survey reveals that the group does not represent the majority of crime victims — who they are, what they need, or how they think about public safety.

The California Crime Victims’ Survey, commissioned by Californians for Safety and Justice (CSJ), sheds light on the realities of victimization, a crucial step for developing policies that prevent future victims and reduce suffering of those victimized in the past.

While groups like CVU are primarily white and middle-class, large victimization studies consistently show that most crime victims are people of color from low-income communities. The CSJ survey underscores the clustering of victimization in these sectors of society: Most crime victims had been victimized multiple times and knew other victims, while most non-victims were surrounded by fellow non-victims.

The survey also found that most crime victims overwhelmingly favored rehabilitation and treatment over jail and prison. The findings, though incongruent with the actions of CVU, are not surprising, as the communities suffering the greatest victimization are the same communities devastated by tough criminal justice policies. The high rates of incarceration in these communities disrupt families, weaken social ties, and increase unemployment and homelessness — resulting in more crime and thus perpetuating the cycle of victimization.

The experiences of victims in these communities are given little attention, while high-profile advocates like CVU are designated by the media and policymakers as the authoritative voice of victims. The result is legislation based on the needs and circumstances of a small minority of victims, which is of little help to rest.

For example, take tough-on-crime laws passed in the wake of high-profile crimes involving young white girls slain by nefarious strangers, such as Jessica’s Law, Marsy’s Law, Megan’s Law, AMBER Alerts, Jenna’s Law, Chelsea’s Law, and California’s Three Strikes Law (spurred by the homicides of Kimber Reynolds and Polly Klaas). These laws are tailored to fit crimes that are extremely gruesome — and extremely rare. They do nothing to address the societal problems that are the root causes of most crimes; indeed, studies on Megan’s Law, AMBER Alerts, Jessica’s Law, and Three Strikes have failed to demonstrate improvements to public safety.

The CSJ survey reveals that most victims do not want to ratchet up our already-harsh criminal penalties — they want to be made whole again. Not only do victims experience anxiety, stress, and fear, but they also have difficulty accessing services that can help them deal with this psychological aftermath. These are needs best met by the social welfare system, not the criminal justice system. Policymakers who want to be on the side of crime victims must address these true needs.