Why victims of crime deserve a voice

 Why victims of crime deserve a voice
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Last week, the state of Texas executed one of three men convicted of killing James Byrd, Jr.; a man whose gruesome, racially-motivated murder sparked passage of the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act. Though much of the public’s attention centers on learning more about the man who died by lethal injection, the pleas of Byrd’s family, including sister, Betty Boatner, son, Ross Byrd and daughter, Renee Mullins, illustrate the lifelong challenges facing survivors and family members of violent crime victims.

Oftentimes, support resources are sorely lacking and their voices go unheard. 

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Byrd was dragged behind a pickup truck for three miles before his body was dumped in front of an historically Black church in the area. Twenty years after his murder, Byrd’s name re-enters the public dialogue at a critical time, as a new wave of criminal justice reform is sweeping the nation with major proposals at every level of government.

In December 2018, President TrumpDonald John Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president MORE signed The First Step Act to reduce federal sentencing disparities. And now, legislators in Delaware, Michigan, New York, Tennessee, Florida, Arizona and Texas are mulling a diverse crop of reform measures including record expungement, education access and early release. 

By now, most people are aware that the United States locks up more people, per incident, than any other country in the world. Organizations such as Cut50, Just Leadership USA and the Reform Alliance were formed to advocate on behalf of the 2.3 million people currently behind bars and the 650,000 that are released from prison each year.

In discussing his recent executive order halting executions, California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) pointed to broader inequities in the criminal justice system including the fact that African Americans comprise just 12 percent of the U.S. population, but over half of all Americans sentenced to death. Beyond issues of race, gender and class, geography also shapes the pursuit of justice.

The overwhelming majority of executions in this country have occurred in Southern states. In fact, Texas and my home state of Virginia combine for 45 percent of all executions in this country. And yet, the South still has one of the highest murder rates of any region in the country. Certainly, those statistics should give us pause and motivate action.

But something is often missing from that myopic dialogue. There’s a noticeable lack of voices and experiences of victims. Victims of color, whose needs become marginalized while families are often stigmatized and overlooked within mainstream society, are particularly absent.

Legislators and advocates must craft public policy that addresses the institutional dynamics that shape victims’ experiences. For example, redirecting cost savings from halting death penalty cases toward victims’ services programs, funding research on the perpetual stress experienced by young people living in violence-prone areas, providing comprehensive mental health support to survivors and bolstering the commitment to solving cold cases. In addition, Congress can do more to expand the cap for the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) Fund that uses criminal fines to provide compensation, medical care and treatment for victims and their family members. All of these measures will strengthen the national impetus to be smart on crime, rather than simply being tough on crime. 

As this new cadre of reform leaders promote the mantra that, “those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” charting the path toward justice should include the needs of those most impacted by crime and violence. In 2015 my colleague Ben Jones and I published an article on Connecticut’s death penalty repeal effort where we introduced a concept we call authentic power. Authentic power reflects the extent that groups harmed by a policy can convince policymakers, advocates and government officials to acknowledge this harm and ultimately, change the policy to the group’s benefit.

As academics we are trained to approach these topics from a detached, objective and often quantitative perspective. But on Feb. 20, 2011, that boundary was erased for me. My 21-year-old cousin, Brian Anthony Patterson, was murdered at a party in Virginia. A 19-year-old stood over Brian and fired nine shots into his body. He took Brian’s life, critically wounded another young man and permanently shattered multiple families — including his own.

Brian’s life mattered. But amid the feelings of hurt, anger, confusion and yes shame, our family was left feeling as if his loss was dismissed by others as just another urban narrative. Through this lens I learned just how important it is for justice movements to address the unfair notion that certain families are less worthy of justice depending on the circumstances of their loved one’s death.

It is time for legislators, activists and advocates to fully address the multiple dimensions of policy reform that may produce unintended consequences. Efforts enacted under the guise of being “tough on crime” are often in reality toughest on victims. James Byrd’s son along with other members of his family have opposed the execution because they believe that executing one person fails to address the broader social and political context that allows hate to flourish.

To be sure, no one can speak on behalf of all victims regardless of what side of the debate they fall. But to fully understand the dynamics of community, power and privilege, the quest for comprehensive justice reform must address how the arbitrary way we decide which lives are more important, leaves us with a system that is far from just.

Khalilah L. Brown-Dean Ph.D,. is an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University where she writes about American Politics, political psychology and public policy. Her book, "Identity Politics in the United States," will be released in September 2019. Follow her on Twitter: @KBDPHD.