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.

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