Bring victims to the table on criminal justice reform
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Criminal justice reform is hailed as the one policy area where conservatives and progressives can still reach across the aisle and find consensus. 

The movement has supporters all across the ideological spectrum, from business associations to faith-based organizations, civil rights groups to limited-government advocates. But until recently, one group has largely been left out of the conversation: victims.

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And that’s a missed opportunity for justice reform advocates. Because we support many of the policies they endorse. This week is National Crime Victims Rights’ week, and it just so happens that April is Second Chance Month. So it seems appropriate to remind the nation that improved reentry policies for the formerly incarcerated and the objectives of victims’ groups are rooted in the same goal: to improve public safety.

 

It stunned many when the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs and the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence — our respective organizations — publicly endorsed a measure aimed at breaking down barriers for the formerly incarcerated so that they can find jobs and, most importantly to us, turn away from crime.

Domestic violence and sexual assault victims’ advocates see justice reform through unique and complicated lenses. We obviously want to hold dangerous batterers and rapists accountable for their crimes. 

That means making sure we aren’t releasing these individuals early because our prisons are overcrowded with nonviolent offenders. We supported a measure that passed in Kentucky that adjusts probation and parole for those who need less supervision.

Kentucky’s recidivism rate – the rate at which offenders return to prison – is an abysmal 40 percent over a three-year period. When individuals return to a life of crime because we make it hard for them to find jobs and housing, victims suffer over and over again.

We support evidence-based justice reforms that facilitate re-entry and lower both crime and recidivism rates, such as those implemented in red and blue states in recent years. 

Connecticut has been on the cutting edge of sentencing reforms and alternatives to incarceration for those with addiction and mental health issues. As a result, the state’s crime rate is now at a 48-year low. 

In deep red Texas, one of the first states to pass alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders and close prisons, recidivism has dropped and the state’s crime rate is the lowest it has been since the 1960s.

Our prisons are full of people suffering from mental health problems and drug and alcohol addiction. Treating these illnesses, rather than locking sick people up with hardcore criminals for years, leads to better public safety outcomes that serve victims, and all of society.

Where this issue gets complicated for us is when you look inside our women’s prisons, where a majority of inmates are survivors of physical or sexual abuse. It is our job to advocate for all survivors, including those who are incarcerated.

According to a 2011 report by the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School, nine out of 10 women in New York’s prisons report being survivors of abuse and 75 percent have endured severe intimate partner violence during adulthood.

The ACLU confirms that incarcerated women—nearly 60 percent of female state prisoners nationwide and as many as 94 percent of certain female prison populations—have a history of physical or sexual abuse.

Abusers may coerce victims into participating in criminal activity or victims may believe that committing a crime is the only way they can keep their children housed and fed.

Substance abuse among victims of domestic violence and sexual assault often leads to incarceration when illegal drugs are used to self-medicate against the trauma they experience. And for some victims, violence may be used as a last resort to protect themselves and their children from an abusive partner.

In other words, while it would be easy and understandable for us to take a lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach toward perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual assault, we have to advocate for approaches that truly protect victims – even those who have committed crimes – and help them on their way to healing and recovery.

As we mark National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, we hope that reform advocates give victims’ groups a seat at the table to help shape justice reform. We support evidence-based approaches and want to encourage the reinvestment of savings from incarcerating fewer individuals into much-needed services to support survivors.

Eileen Recktenwald is the executive director of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs. Sherry Currens is the executive director of the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.