New-wave victim advocates

David Guizar lost two brothers to LA gun violence
David Guizar lost two brothers to LA gun violence 29 years apart.

In my recently concluded series for Slate on crime victims, I touched occasionally on a theme that I wanted to develop further in those stories but didn’t get the opportunity. Now, in my latest article, published by Al Jazeera America, I dug more deeply into the story of how victim advocacy is changing.

I focus on Californians for Safety and Justice and Los Angeles activist David Guizar, the chair of its crime-victims affiliate. Guizar joined CSJ through his friendship and longtime collaboration with a more prominent LA organizer, Aqeela Sherrills. I tell how those men’s experiences with violence and traumatic loss influences their approach to helping other victims — not through increasing the severity of punishment, which has been the approach often taken by traditional victims’ advocates, but through better crime prevention and services for victims.

CSJ is at the front of a movement that aligns victim advocates more with criminal justice reformers than with law enforcement. That seeming mismatch makes sense once you know their experiences and understand their argument that crime policy for too long has ignored the views of the crime victims at greatest risk: people of color, whose communities are ravaged just as much by excessive incarceration as by violence. As they see it, harsh punishment of offenders makes many victims feel good, at least temporarily, and is the response that outsiders imagine first, as we are hard-wired to avenge wrongdoing. But if retribution is the only choice we give victims, we’re shortchanging them of the aid they really need. And we’re setting up today’s victim to turn into tomorrow’s criminal, because untreated trauma — especially the repeat victimization suffered by people in the toughest neighborhoods — so often leads to mental illness, addiction, and violence. Victim support, in other words, is the best crime prevention — if we put our money and actions where our mouths are when we say how we sympathize with victims.

When it became clear that I would have to find a new home for this story, so much time had gone by since I first started reporting the story in mid-2014 that another writer beat me to the punch. Sarah Stillman’s excellent story last fall on The New Yorker‘s website hit many of the same themes. I intend for my story to expand on that by telling the history of where these groups sprang from, the shape and future of the movement, and — most important — the personal struggle and mission of Guizar and his mentor, Sherrills, that bring these ideas to life.

On my portfolio pages, I’ve now separated my stories on crime victims from my other recent work.

Series finale: Why not restorative justice?

Dennis Wittman, founder of a groundbreaking program
Dennis Wittman, founder of a groundbreaking program

Since June, my series at Slate on crime victims has told the stories of victims and approaches to criminal justice that counter popular myths about who victims are and what they need. Three of the first five stories in particular (Parts 1, 2, and 5) pointed to a philosophy called restorative justice as the counterweight to traditional tough-on-crime policies that have given us excessive imprisonment, counterproductive policing tactics, and a punitive mentality underlying all of those systemic problems.

So why isn’t restorative justice the solution to all that ails our criminal justice system? The last in the series, which was published today, asks that question and examines why restorative justice — which focuses on what victims and communities need to heal from and prevent crime, rather than just on how to punish wrongdoing — has failed so far to fulfill the promise that its believers see in it as a powerful alternative.

Restorative-justice advocates no doubt will object to my premise, as their mission is to press for social change by pointing to all the good that restorative justice programs have accomplished already. My own series pointed out such successes, and the virtues of taking this healing, alternative approach. But as a journalist, my job is to step back and measure its impact. The conclusion I came away with was that restorative justice remains marginalized, rarely embraced by the public or policymakers, and rarely discussed in our current criminal-justice reform debate.

To show why that it is the case, I visited one of the first and most ambitious attempts to embed a restorative approach in a countywide justice system. The program in Genesee County, in western New York state, peaked early and its reforms have not proved long-lasting. The current state of affairs at a program called Genesee Justice is not all bad. As I say in the story, victims in this county enjoy a level of state-provided care that’s rare in America. But the founders’ dream, to remake justice in this county permanently and radically, is all but gone. By telling the story of how it grew and shrank, I hope to shed light on the broader restorative-justice movement and its place in American justice.

Thanks for reading.

Good cop, bad cop

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 5.40.46 PMWhen an editor from TakePart asked me to write about policing reform using Minneapolis as the example, I quickly determined that the chosen location made perfect sense as a window into a topic I’ve written about before. The more I learned through my reporting, including a week I spent there, Minneapolis and its small neighbor, Columbia Heights, Minnesota, struck me as ideal showcases of the issues that make policing such a fraught topic these days — even though the region hadn’t joined the list of cities known nationally for their problems.

And then that changed. Just as my editor and I were finishing the story, Minneapolis police shot and killed Jamar Clark, touching off tense protests that drew national attention when white supremacists shot and wounded five Black Lives Matter protesters outside a Minneapolis police station.

The end result, published today, puts the reaction to Clark’s death in the context of years of clashes between police and citizens. Despite a reform-minded administration and some positive changes of late, Minneapolis remains a divided city, a division that often defies logic to outsiders who never experience the kind of policing that inner-city people of color typically do. To them, the controversies over killings by police boil down to bad behavior and anti-cop lawlessness. That’s the kind of perspective you gain when you live in comfort and safety and get only the good kind of policing.

Alongside the story of Minneapolis, I tell the story of Columbia Heights, where a forward-thinking chief has led his department through a radical transformation that has cut crime while improving relations at the same time. They do it by looking for people to help instead of looking for people to arrest — the essence of the community-oriented policing ethos that my story examines. And the essence of what police reformers, inside and outside the policing profession, mean when they talk about the hard work that’s needed to restore and maintain a community’s trust in its police. I hope this story contributes to people’s understanding of what that debate is about.

Policing without oppressing

Alan Morrison, holding his 2-year-old son, told me how the Minneapolis Police Department's revised disciplinary system still treats complainants like the enemy.
Alan Morrison, holding his 2-year-old son, told me how the Minneapolis Police Department’s revised disciplinary system still treats complainants like the enemy.

Over on my Facebook page this week, I’ve been posting a series of updates on my latest project, a feature story on policing controversies and solutions. I spent the week in and around Minneapolis, watching one police department as it engaged with its community in constructive ways — and another as it tries to do the same, but remains dogged by its long history of heavy-handed, brutal tactics.

At the heart of this story, which will be published in December, is the tension between effective crime control and the trust police must earn among the law-abiding majority in high-crime neighborhood. It’s the loss of that trust that made itself heard loud and clear the past couple of years, from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore and beyond. Throughout these controversies are longstanding racial tensions and the long history of discriminatory law enforcement throughout this country. In Minneapolis, there’s an added layer of complexity with the region’s recent influx of Muslims, many from Somalia.

The problems have solutions, which is what I will focus my story on. To show glimpses of this work in progress, I posted a number of times as I reported the story, on Monday, Tuesday, twice on Wednesday (here and here), and at the conclusion of the trip. The posts don’t go into great detail about the story or my thinking — I’m still developing the facts and my conclusions as I report through next week — but I share these snippets as a way of showing the nature of this kind of reporting work and the issues I’m interested in.

Another victim of church’s abuse speaks

GodsNobodies_cover_squareSoon after the December 2012 publication of my true-crime Kindle Single God’s Nobodies: Misguided Faith and Murder in the Life of One American Family, I came under attack by supporters of the church at the center of the tragedy I wrote about. They claimed that I lied about their beloved minister to further an anti-Christian agenda and to sneer at their moral stand against homosexuality, when in fact the real purpose of my story was to show how the church’s cultish form of social control backfired badly and destroyed a family. The story examines the circumstances surrounding the death of Pam Ginocchetti at the hands of her son, Syracuse University student Tim Ginocchetti.

During my reporting for God’s Nobodies, and after its publication, I spoke to numerous former church members who confirmed various elements of what I had learned about the Ginocchettis’ experience. But one in particular, who just surfaced last week, tells a story so remarkably similar to Tim Ginocchetti’s — about a homophobia extreme enough, paired with obedience to a minister absolute enough, to tear a former church member from his family — that I want to share what he told me, with his permission.

Twenty years ago, on his 21st birthday, Michael Marasco came out to his family. He had feared their reaction as he grew up with the knowledge that he is gay, because of what he knew would be the minister’s response: condemnation, followed by pseudo-medical treatment of his condition. Marasco’s fears began to be realized when his mother  sided with her church against her son. As he described it to me in an email:

I remember the Sunday after coming out to my family my mother stood up in church and announced that I told her I was gay and that she would never support my lifestyle decision. I walked out of the church, drove home packed my things….

That ended Marasco’s contact with his parents, sister, and brother — with everyone in his family and with whom he’d grown up in the church, other than family members who also had left the church — for many years. As I documented in God’s Nobodies, the minister counsels his members to shun defectors from the church, even immediate family members (he’s careful never to articulate his mandates unambiguously and publicly, but somehow it happens again and again that members heed his hints and act accordingly).

Marasco goes on to note the parallels between his life and Tim Ginocchetti’s: Marasco’s grandparents were the live-in caretakers of the church’s lakeside retreat property, Bethany Retreat (later on, Tim’s parents were the minister’s choice as caretakers; it’s where Tim grew up); Marasco’s mother and Pam Ginocchetti were close friends; Marasco was close friends with Timothy Lynch, the firefighter killed along with Tim’s father, John Ginocchetti, in the tragedy that began the Ginocchetti family’s unraveling.

Marasco fondly remembers the family before all of that:

At the end of services, John was always the first to greet me with his firm handshake and warm embrace. As we waited in line he would talk to me about electricity and construction (things he knew I loved doing with my grandfather growing up at Bethany). In my personal opinion John was one of the most real and down to earth people I met at church. I remember the first time John & Pam invited my family to their newly renovated caretakers home at Bethany (formerly my grandparents home) John showing me all of the new gadgets he had installed and Tim, so excited to show me his bedroom that once was mine during my frequent visits to my grandparents on weekends and during the summer when school was out. Pam too was an amazing host, welcoming us warmly into her home and preparing an Italian dinner of lasagna and meatballs (crazy how I remember that) which were enjoyed over casual conversation.

How this sweet, devoted family ended up so devastated, and its love turned to hate and bitterness, was the central question I pursued in God’s Nobodies. The answers always led back to the minister and the church.

In Marasco’s case, the rigid social rules of the church sent him into exile from his family. In Tim’s case, he stayed with his widowed mother. After her years of abuse over his effeminate ways and threats to subject Tim to the minister’s forceful intervention, Pam edged closer than ever to confronting Tim over his deeply hidden homosexuality. Just days after his 21st birthday, Tim exploded in anger and killed her. He is now nine years into a 15-year prison sentence. When his grandmother, Esther Rufo, stepped forward to describe the relationship between Tim and her daughter Pam, and revealed the role of the secretive church, she lost her husband of 50 years and virtually all contact with her remaining two children and grandchildren.

I never doubted the truth of what I wrote about the church’s methods and their destructive effects on some members’ lives. But I am grateful that Marasco had the courage to tell his story publicly.

Part 5: Victims seeking a cure for violence

Adela Barajas in front of the South LA community center she urged the city to build to keep her neighborhood kids safer.
Adela Barajas in front of the South LA community center she urged the city to build to keep her neighborhood kids safer.

In the fifth installment of my series on crime victims at Slate, published today, I visit the heartland of tough-on-crime policies — California — to look at a thriving subculture of crime victims and others whose work in crime prevention and gang intervention belies myths about who victims are and what they need.

In the simplistic binaries preferred by partisans, crime invites two alternate approaches: the conservative one that treats our cities and their black and brown majorities as amoral killing grounds that can only be cleaned up through iron-fisted policing and extreme prison sentences; and the liberal one that focuses on addressing police brutality and mass incarceration without worrying much about the predominately black and brown victims of everyday violence and disorder.

There is a third way, and it’s what I set out in search of in this latest story. I focused on Los Angeles activists, in part because of the city’s long history of police-community tensions, which have boiled over spectacularly twice, in the riots of 1965 and 1992, and because of California’s leading role in promoting policies advocated by and for crime victims that ratcheted up prison sentences and gave us an historic prison boom. The victims who favor these get-tougher policies are the ones we’re used to hearing from. The people and programs I write about in this story show a different side to victim advocacy, one in which prevention, making peace, and treating trauma take priority. And where there is no great divide between victims and offenders; they are all part of the same community, often the same families.

My subjects include:

  • The Southern California Cease Fire Committee, longtime gang interventionists who work, at times uneasily, with law enforcement.
  • Father Greg Boyle and his Homeboy Industries, offering former prisoners and gang members an escape from crime through meaningful job training and other needed services.
  • Karl Cruz, another activist in a faith-based program whose past as a gang member helps him connect with youth in his San Fernando Valley community.
  • Adela Barajas, whose tribute to her slain sister-in-law is a program called L.A.U.R.A., which provides comfort for the families of murder victims and an alternative for the neighborhood’s children who otherwise would be sucked into gangs and crime.

Among the more clueless reactions to the “Black Lives Matter” movement are claims that protesting police brutality obscures the real problem: violence within black and brown communities. In these critics’ view, there must be something wrong with those communities’ culture or they would do more to prevent violence. The people in my story demonstrate how preposterous those assumptions are. They work hard every day, over the span of decades, to make their communities safer. They have all witnessed or been the victims of violence repeatedly, and know the communities of victims and of the imprisoned are often one in the same. And they show that a true partnership between police and citizens requires strategies that transcend the discredited approaches from the era of zero-tolerance policing.

On this page of my site, I link to all five stories in the series published so far. The sixth and final story, assessing the restorative justice movement’s potential to solve many of the problems pointed out in the series, is coming soon.

Part 4: Victims, policing, and trust

Eric Garner's death and then the murders of two NYPD officers made Susan Herman's job immeasurably harder.
Eric Garner’s death and then the murders of two NYPD officers made Susan Herman’s job immeasurably harder.

Part 4 of my crime victims series, now available at Slate, asks what happens when you put a veteran  victims’ advocate in charge of the cultural makeover of the nation’s largest police department. That’s what has been happening in New York for the past year and a half, with the subject of my story, Susan Herman, working behind the scenes to carry out NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton’s mission to mend relations with communities of color while simultaneously improving services for crime victims.

Herman is no ordinary victims’ advocate. She articulates a different approach to serving victims, one that emphasizes doing much more for victims who are more often hunted by the police than helped by them; young, black men, in particular. Trying to accomplish that from inside NYPD while addressing the department’s racially tense community relations at such a volatile time, with such a vocal community of police critics in New York, makes Herman’s job seem impossible — until you see what she’s done already.

When I first planned this story in 2013,  Herman was a criminal-justice professor at Pace University pushing a philosophy of policing and victim services she calls parallel justice (which I explain in the story, and wrote about here several years ago). Then came her appointment as deputy commissioner for collaborative policing at NYPD. Then came Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and all the rest. The story evolved, following events right up to the present. What was to be one window into the victims-services world turned into an examination of a much more complex set of issues at the heart of policing and victim services.

I look forward to hearing readers’ comments on Slate, here on this blog, or on my social media sites.

Part 3: Tough-on-crime’s last true believer

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 8.37.56 AM
Bill Otis, testifying at a House hearing in 2014

The third in my series on crime victims, now published at Slate, arose from my  disposition as a journalist (and, I suppose, as a person) to be contrary. I don’t mean that in the ornery or negative sense, but in the skeptical sense. As I looked around the criminal-justice reform community, and the media coverage of it, I saw such unanimity of opinion on the inevitability of reform’s passage that it made me wonder: What might they be missing?

And that’s how I settled on profiling Bill Otis, a former federal prosecutor who writes about criminal justice at the Crime and Consequences blog. Otis remains practically a solitary holdout for the status quo in tough-on-crime sentencing policy as Washington cheers on the reform movement. And, as I explain in the story, Otis is worth watching because he has some effective trump cards to play that just might keep his side winning (as it has been all along).

My story examines Otis’ victim-themed arguments for maintaining the status quo in federal sentencing laws (and the logic extends to the states as well). I chide reformers for failing to voice a loud enough victim-centered counter-argument (though I do note some significant new voices starting to find a way to say that reducing punishment can be done in tandem with policies that help victims).

But my underlying point is one that’s articulated in the story by Otis’ frequent sparring partner, Doug Berman of Ohio State, who writes his own influential blog on sentencing from a more liberal point of view. I only touch on it in the story, but in my interview with Berman he explained at more length why he values Otis’ role in the debate even though the two can hardly agree on anything:

I do think it’s an enduring shame that we don’t have as much rigorous public policy debate about these issues as I think is needed. I think it’s a particular shame that both Bill and I have to resort to comments on blogs to really have somebody to mix it up with in a setting that I think should lead to lots and lots of mixing it up. …

It’s only as a result of really sustained engagement with these issues that you go from a useful but superficial first-cut instinct about a lot of this stuff, to get deeper into what’s really at stake, who are the real winners and losers in different proposals.

That’s why I read Otis regularly, and why I decided to write about him in a series that asks what needs of victims we neglect when we focus only on tough sentencing as justice for victims. His passionate, clear writing articulates the view that has prevailed for decades. And there’s a reason that it has — because many believe it.

There’s a bit of know-thy-enemy in my story, but I have a hard time thinking of Otis as an enemy, given his gracious agreement to talk to me. He recognized my obviously opposite leanings (a favorite target of Otis’ is the philanthropist George Soros, whose money funded the Soros Justice Fellowship that paid for my work on my series for the past year; also, Slate’s liberal leanings are hardly a secret). And yet he gamely engaged with me.

Full disclosure: Before I decided to write my story about Otis, he and I mixed it up in the comments on this blog post. I criticized him for his attack on a news story that I praised. The comments back and forth got a little heated. To some, that might justify a permanent grudge. But, like Berman, I believe there’s value when we see our ideas challenged. We might modify our ideas, or at least our strategy, as a result. Plus, the debate-club nerd in me (and, I suspect, in Otis) enjoys the mental exercise. It’s invigorating.

One other bit of backstory: As with all of the stories in this series, I began the research and reporting in spring 2014 and continued through the rest of that year and into the spring of 2015. I drafted this story in January and then revised it and updated it, after getting edits back, in June and July. In the Internet age, such a protracted schedule is unheard of, but it’s the nature of such a large beast as this series. But for this story in particular, given its strong grounding in the news, I spent a great deal of time in a state of anxiety, worried that something major would change in Washington politics to undermine the entire point of the story. Would Sen. Charles Grassley convert to the reform side? Would key legislation pass, contrary to my thesis that the traditionalists still hold sway? It seems we’re on the verge of new proposals that might unstick what’s stuck. But, at least for now, Washington’s gridlock didn’t magically disappear while my story was in queue. The basic storyline I developed more than a year ago never really changed, although I kept busy updating examples and developments in the interim between drafting it and publishing it.

In just the past few days, we’ve seen this by Andrew Cohen on the enduring politics of tough-on-crime, and this report by the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (a group Otis has worked with), with a counterattack by Families Against Mandatory Minimums), all of which adds up to pushback by the tough-on-crime side. So I’m glad that my story on Mr. Pushback himself has finally been published — before everyone else gets in on this theme.


Part 2 in a series: victims who counsel prisoners

Albert and Michelle Cotton
Albert and Michelle Cotton

The second story in my series at Slate on crime victims has now been published. Like the first, on the mother of a murder victim whose dramatic meeting with her daughter’s killer I witnessed, this story grew out of reporting I’ve done for years on restorative justice. I ran across both White and the man who runs the program I write about this week, John Sage of Bridges to Life, five years ago when working on other projects. I’m glad I was able, finally, to bring their stories to a prominent national forum.

Not all of my series focuses on restorative justice — the third, fourth, and fifth stories look at other questions concerning who victims are and what they need — but the final installment will return to restorative justice with an assessment of whether that movement can gain enough acceptance in this country to address the biggest challenges my series is pointing out.

What intrigued me most about Bridges to Life,  a prisoner-counseling program based in Texas, is not just what it does for prisoners to teach them to live more responsibly, but what it can do for the crime victims who serve as volunteer counselors. By sharing with the prisoners the stories of what crime did to them and their families, what do the victims get from it? They shared their stories with me to show to others why someone deeply harmed by crime — many of them are survivors of murder victims — would want to step inside a prison and work to improve the lives of prisoners who live in shame for the harm they caused others.

One of the people I interviewed in Houston for this story who didn’t make it into the final version is a Bridges to Life volunteer, but he was not a crime victim. Instead, he spent more than 25 years in prison for a murder he committed at age 17. He and his friends jumped a man and his son who were waiting for a bus. Cotton chased down the father and, in a struggle for his money, shot him.

In all his years in prison, the one program that made a deep impression on Cotton was Bridges to Life. He decided when he got out that he would volunteer to teach youth from his own horrible experience what can go wrong, and how to avoid such a life. While holding down a good  job and buying his first house with his wife Michelle — his middle school sweetheart with whom he reunited after his release — Cotton takes the time to go juvenile jails and give his talks. He tells the kids what it is like to have spent his 20s and 30s behind bars, and what it’s like to know that somewhere lives a man about his age who has spent the past 29 years without a father.

Cotton told me, “Sometimes I look at a class and wonder if I can help save any of them. But, at that point, you really never know.” He does know that if he doesn’t try, then they likely won’t get the message from someone whose word they trust as authentic. “At their age,” Cotton says, “if somebody could have spoke to me, I don’t know if that would have changed me. But I would have liked to see. I would like to have had that opportunity.”

As my visit at Cotton’s North Houston house was winding up, I noticed a sign in his front yard: “PRIVATE PROPERTY. LAST WARNING.” I asked Cotton about it. His answer struck me as both ironic and hopeful, about a man many would have written off as hopeless, but who spent a long time incarcerated and now tries to live a good life and give back to the community. In other words, people can change.

He explained the sign went up after he experienced crime first hand. “Somebody tried to steal my truck out of the driveway,” he said. “Busted my window.” His voice turned incredulous at the nerve of the thief: “It’s like, here it is, I’m workin’ for that!”

He is indeed. And, by every indication, we’re all better off that he is, instead of having gone to his execution or died in prison. That his commitment to do better was inspired by crime victims makes his atonement all the more satisfying.

A changed life

I complained in my last post about reactions to my most recent story that caused me to despair about the work that I do. But something happened today to set things right.

First, about last week: I wasn’t surprised that many readers disagreed with my story’s conclusions. After all, a story about a woman who goes beyond forgiveness of her daughter’s killer to have a caring relationship with him is bound to be controversial. But I found it disheartening that many of the harshest reactions seemed based on gut assumptions rather than on the facts in the story. Clearly, many didn’t even bother to read the story they were condemning. I consider the main purpose of my stories to be educational — to explain a slice of the world that you may not have imagined — and not advocacy journalism. So it’s not my goal to change your heart so much as to open your mind. When that doesn’t happen — or, rather, when the people making the most noise in anonymous comments demonstrate that it didn’t happen for them — it’s easy to lose heart.

Now for what restored a bit of my faith in my own ability to write stories that make an impact. I was featured in a Q&A about my work in the latest issue of ASJA Magazine, the publication for members of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (it’s behind a paywall, or I’d share a link). In the article,  by ASJA’s president Randy Dotinga, I mentioned a cover story I wrote two years ago for Pacific Standard magazine on post-traumatic growth, a psychological phenomenon in which violent trauma can trigger positive growth in its victim. The point of the story was to show an upside to trauma, and maybe to teach that even traumatic injury as severe as PTSD could turn into something positive for some people. The story generated quite a few social-media posts and letters to the editor, but I didn’t get a clear sense of its impact on readers. As I told Dotinga, “I’d like to think it changed how people see trauma and recovery, but it’s hard to know of any concrete difference it made.”

Today I got an email from an ASJA member who read the Q&A and then read the Pacific Standard feature. Out of respect for her privacy, I won’t quote the email in its entirety. But she told me she was a victim of a violent crime nearly 20 years ago. Plagued by nightmares, she ultimately changed the focus of her work to achieve what she called a more “well-rounded life.” She’d always thought of her reactions to her trauma as a means of coping to counteract the harm that was done to her. After reading my story, she now sees it in a new light, as a positive change that sprang from something terrible. She didn’t just struggle to bounce back; she grew. She concluded, “Your take changed my perspective on the past 20 years or so of my existence.”

That, my friends, is what’s known in my business as a rich reward for the work that I do.

A writer and editor on law, crime, and business