Tag Archives: victims

An update on my work

Since the end of my Soros Justice Fellowship in 2015, I have hoped and planned to continue focusing on how we respond to crime victims. Throughout much of 2016 I worked on a variety of assignments, all concerning criminal justice policy, but I realized this fall that unless I set aside that work temporarily, I would never find the time to focus on a book proposal. So that is what I have done since October.

I have been reporting on what I see as the core narrative in a book that explores urban violence, its victims, and our policies to help those victims and reduce the violence. I will continue that work in 2017 — with, I hope, a book contract at some point, so that I can afford to devote more months to the book’s reporting and eventually writing.

I am being deliberately vague at this point. Once I am sure of the direction this is taking, I plan to share glimpses of the work in progress. Stay tuned.


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.

Crime victims series recap: what besides retribution?

Whenever people confront a complex social problem, gut reactions might feel good and right, but they rarely provide true or long-lasting solutions. Few problems are as complex as crime. And so, when we think about crime victims, especially about victims of violence, our first reactions get it wrong so consistently that it’s remarkable we ever get anything about it right.

In the stories that I’ve told at Slate after a year’s work under a Soros Justice Media Fellowhip, I have tried to show that victims are not simply defined by their wound, nor can that wound be healed by lashing out blindly at those who harmed them — or encouraging them to find their only solace in such anger and simple retribution. These are natural emotions. Most of us have them, and no one should ever judge victims for grasping at punishment of their offender as their medicine. But we owe it to victims to understand them and their experience much more deeply than we do when we shed a tear, rage at the “senseless” crime that befell them, and then move on, secure in the belief that punishment is the primary response needed. And we must offer victims more options than just indulging their first reactions.

Though I have admitted doubts that my stories might change hearts and minds about the range of victims’ true experiences, I hope they did.  I plan to continue reporting on these topics. Please keep watching this blog and my social media feeds for updates on my work. Thanks for reading. And thanks to the hundreds of victims and experts whose time and writings informed my work; to Slate and my talented editor John Swansburg for helping me sharpen the telling of these stories and for giving them great exposure; and to my friends, colleagues, and benefactors at the Open Society Foundations for supporting criminal-justice journalism through the Soros Justice Fellowships.

Here are the highlights:

Archive of blog posts on the series in progress, outtakes from the stories, and summaries of the stories as they appeared.

The stories:

Part One: Linda White’s example of extreme forgiveness as the antidote to victim anger

Part Two: Bridges to Life and the victims who enter the belly of the beast to counsel prisoners

Part Three: Bill Otis, tough-on-crime’s last man standing, and the arguments that motivate federal criminal justice policy

Part Four: Susan Herman’s mission to change NYPD culture and serve victims from One Police Plaza

Part Five: Los Angeles’ dedicated cadre of victims who respond to crime by seeking to save others from it

Part Six: The promise and peril of restorative justice as an alternative to America’s punitive system

One woman’s legacy

At The Intercept, journalist Liliana Segura today published a powerful story with facts remarkably parallel to the story that will mark the debut of my upcoming series on crime victims.

Segura’s story focuses on Paula Cooper, who killed herself in May, two years after her release from prison for a notorious murder. The most remarkable twist in Cooper’s sad story involves Bill Pelke, the grandson of Cooper’s victim. Segura writes:

The more Bill learned about Paula, the more he was certain his grandmother would have forgiven her. He tried to visit her in prison, but was denied permission — it was against policy to allow convicted murderers to see members of their victim’s family. So Bill and Paula wrote letters. Their correspondence would last years. When 19-year-old Paula’s death sentence was commuted to 60 years in July 1989, Bill’s first words were, “Praise the Lord!” And by the time she was released on good behavior, on June 17, 2013, neither was the same person they had been in 1985. Paula was a grown women who had earned her GED, multiple degrees, and the support of prisoners and activists alike. Bill, now in his 60s, had founded Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing, one of the most influential anti-death penalty groups in the country, led by victims of crime. He had also gained permission to see Paula, visiting her 14 times.

The story that starts my series, which will be published soon at Slate, looks at a similar survivor who had a similar response to the person who harmed her loved one. We are so conditioned to expect, even demand, that victims act only one way that no matter how many times we hear of victims like Bill Pelke we act surprised. The point of my story is to look at another memorable victim-offender encounter, and then to use it as a window into questions about how victim advocacy has come to be defined in ways that marginalizes the kind of work Pelke does.

Paula Cooper’s story is not a happy one. These stories don’t lend themselves to happy endings. But the lessons we can draw from learning about Cooper’s journey, and her effect on Pelke, can only help the rest of us understand different ways of reacting to crime.

The myth of closure

Can someone please tell all elected officials and pundits to strike the word “closure” from their vocabulary when they’re talking about crime victims? Boston Mayor Martin Walsh predictably invoked the term after the jury’s verdict for the death penalty was announced Friday in the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. “I hope this verdict,” the mayor said in a prepared statement, “provides a small amount of closure to the survivors, families, and all impacted by the violent and tragic events surrounding the 2013 Boston Marathon.”

As many victims are quick to point out, and as much of the research of victims’ experiences shows, there is no such thing as closure. If by closure we mean the bad experience comes to an end, and it can be put behind us, then we’re imposing impossible expectations on victims — and on the justice system that we expect to deliver this magical emotional state.

Every victim of violent trauma I have ever interviewed sounds like the marathon survivors quoted in these Boston Globe and New York Times stories after the verdict. They talk about a weight lifted, turning a page, feeling satisfaction when the person who harmed them has been held accountable and punished. What I especially liked about those stories was the variety of viewpoints aired without judgment. Victims deserve space, and help, to come to their own conclusions about what works. And they need time to evolve, as so many victims do, traveling from anger to some version of peace. They can’t close that part of their life, but they can eventually make peace with it.

The value of a high profile case like this is that the extensive storytelling surrounding the event and the characters lets us hear in more detail how real people cope with loss and trauma. There are lessons in this — if we listen — about what all crime victims experience to one degree or another. Hardly any crime victims get the kind of support that the marathon victims have received, monetary and emotional. That’s not a knock against these victims. They suffered terribly, they were targeted as symbols of our country, and they deserve anything and everything we can give them. But we must remember that the best other victims normally can hope for is a check to cover some funeral expenses, a brief stint in counseling, and some help in navigating a criminal justice system that will listen to them only when their views align with prosecutors’.

Perhaps these lessons won’t sink in with politicians. But the rest of us can remember them the next time we feel the urge to impose our own assumptions on how victim ought to feel.

Numbers and lives

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 5.35.23 PMAs part of a memorable report on the true costs of gun violence, a Mother Jones team — Mark Follman, Julie Lurie, Jaeah Lee, and James West — powerfully tells victims’ stories alongside data-driven reporting on the dollars and cents. The data side of the report is impressive enough, as it methodically quantifies the knowns and unknowns of what gun violence costs this country. But the human side of the stories goes to the heart of what victims suffer when injured by gunfire, or when their loved ones die in gun violence.

In a companion package of stories, we meet eight victims and survivors who tell their stories in short form: how they were injured, and the financial and other loses they have suffered. One of them, Jennifer Longdon, is the focus of the main story as she eloquently describes the attack that left her and her fiancé profoundly disabled and her anti-violence advocacy in Phoenix. Accompanying the text story are three videos: one summarizing the nationwide costs of gun violence, and two on Longdon’s case. The first of those describes the crime itself. The second, shown below, addresses the costs to Longdon. Hear Longdon talk about her losses beyond the financial. “Nothing,” she says, “was ever going to be simple or easy again.”

Half-right about victims

Here’s a news story that sees a real problem in the way that crime victims experience criminal justice. But then it falls into a familiar trap in criminal justice thinking.

Liz Shepard of Gannett’s Times Herald in Port Huron, Michigan, wrote about a horrifying crime in which a teen, just before her 18th birthday, arranged for a violent attack on her adoptive parents. Her father died and mother was wounded. Tia Skinner and the two assailants were sentenced to life without parole in 2011.

Mara McCalmon describes to Shepard the trauma of going through that trial and sentencing, only to endure two resentencings of her daughter. Thanks to changes in the law governing life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, Michigan prosecutors twice put McCalmon back in court to describe her ordeal. At the third sentencing, Skinner’s defense team made the family feel under attack as it pursued claims of a troubled childhood, which might mitigate against the most severe sentence.

Quoting the defense lawyer as saying such experiences for victims are a necessary “reality,” the story barely explains the factors considered in sentencing or the reasons for the constitutional and statutory changes that called a juvenile LWOP sentence into question. The story’s primary message: silly legal technicalities that stood in the way of a speedy resolution only served to harm the victims without changing the outcome. If only we figured out, the story seems to conclude, how to make the system a little more punitive, we’d finally do right by victims.

This is the standard approach by American criminal justice, to assume our only societal obligation to the victims is to punish wrongdoing as severely and efficiently as possible. But what stares us in the face in this story is how inadequately that serves these victims. McCalmon, who graciously concedes that important questions were at stake in the resentencings, practically begs for alternatives that would not stick her and her family in the middle of win-at-all-costs adversarial system. She tells Shepard:

Victims never get over these life changing events, however we strive to carry on. And so while we begin and work through this process, with the help and support of our faith, family and friends, rulings that open wounds really re-victimize victims in so many ways.

The rulings are the central problem only if we see victims as tools to be used in achieving “justice” (defined strictly as punishment) and then left to sort out their problems on their own. All too often, victims like McCalmon never hear of methods proven to ease this sort of pain. In restorative justice programs, dialogue and group conferencing take words like McCalmon’s and then dig deeper, to discover what victims truly need that isn’t satisfied by the ultimate sanctions against an offender. Maybe it’s a bridge between the family and the defense team, so that sentencing can proceed without causing so much damage. Maybe it’s face-to-face meetings, after intensive preparation, between the family and the offenders so that the family can say what it needs to say, ask what it needs to know, outside of the harsh glare of a staged conflict in court. Restorative justice doesn’t preclude punishment, but it doesn’t define justice for victims as beginning and ending there.

The first step, though, is listening — really listening — to what victims tell us.

Seeking answers close to home

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 10.46.54 AMSeattle Weekly has just published this long, powerful story by Nina Shapiro that addresses a question at the heart of my work: what stake victims have in the debate over reforms in sentencing and prisons. And she takes on the toughest, most complex kind of case, one in which a violent crime poses questions about punishment, victims’ prerogatives, and emotions on the spectrum from vengeance to forgiveness.

Shapiro’s story starts with Alison Holcomb, the ACLU of Washington activist put in charge of a national ACLU campaign to attack mass incarceration. (Disclosure: the funding for that campaign comes from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, which also funds the Soros Justice Fellowship program that supports my work for a year.) Holcomb and other experts explain why it’s possible to simultaneously support criminal-justice reform and crime victims’ interests. If that’s all that the story accomplished, it would be significant, as I have found few stories that deal so directly with these questions and debunk assumptions that justice for victims starts and ends with the harshest possible punishment for those who harmed them.

But the narrative quickly turns to an even more compelling and unsettling story when Holcomb’s husband, Gregg, agrees to talk to Shapiro about his father’s murder in a 1993 robbery. He opens up about the differences of opinion in his family over the killer’s parole chances and about his own mixed feelings, of letting go of hate while at the same time feeling guilty about that and fantasizing about hurting the killer’s family in the same way his family was hurt. Shapiro delicately renders a human and compelling portrait, illuminating the real issues that victims wrestle with as they seek answers about their loved one’s last moments. She does a fine job of explaining the competing concepts of traditional criminal justice and alternatives like restorative justice. Best of all, she paints in shades of gray.

One more thing: The story features an interview with Oscar Rubi, the man serving 25 years to life for killing Gregg Holcomb’s father. He was 17 at the time of the crime and is now eligible for parole. If that’s all that you think you need to know about Rubi and Holcomb to make value judgments about them, then read the story and listen.

When certain victims count for more

At Slate, Laura Smith describes in detail the architectural process to replace Sandy Hook Elementary School with a new school, one that reflects “a physical manifestation of a town’s response to tragedy.” It reflects something else as well: how selective our sense of compassion is to victims of violent crime.

Besides its $50 million price tag for a school that currently teaches fewer than 400 children, the planned school’s elaborate design process shows a level of caring that is a model of communal concern on a par with, say, the attention paid to detail at lower Manhattan’s ground zero. From the approaching driveway to the security-minded design flourishes to the very decision to rebuild from scratch, the plans speak to priorities that go far beyond utility. Smith writes:

It is an optimistic look at the future, one which seeks to encourage children to play and learn outside, to embrace life and the place they live—and it is a rejection of fear. It is slated to open in the fall of 2016, and then the design and the town’s vision of the future will be tested.

When I look at the cost and thorough planning of the school replacement in the context of the national response to that tragedy — more than $28 million in charitable donations, not to mention massive infusions of government aid — I’m left to wonder what exactly sets these murders apart from the tens of thousands of others that have been committed in the two years since.

I mean no disrespect to the Newtown victims, survivors, and those who genuinely care for their well-being. The survivors deserve anything and everything we can provide to them. Many of the parents have distinguished themselves through their selfless public advocacy to prevent future crimes. And I’m not blind to the obvious: The special horrors of Newtown set it apart for entirely rational reasons.

But we should use this as an occasion to question the factors that drive our charitable, media, and policy responses to crimes of violence. Are the victims of other murders — from mass murders and school shootings to everyday violence on the streets and in homes — any less lost? Are their survivors any less traumatized? In our coldest actuarial moments, when we weigh the relative innocence of each victim, can we really say that Newtown’s were so disproportionately deserving that they justly get so much when others get so little, or simply nothing?

I read the Slate story just before reading this Washington Post post-mortem on Homicide Watch, the innovative Washington, D.C., journalism experiment that showed what it means to care equally for every victim — even those, perhaps especially those, who otherwise would disappear without a trace.

That kind of perfect egalitarianism would never be sustainable if we expected it from all journalists covering murder, much less from donors to charity and policymakers reacting to crises. In fact, it wasn’t even sustainable (financially speaking) as a Washington-only journalism response.

But, when we allow our charity, our journalism, and our public policy to skew so extremely toward some victims and away from others — whether based on common sense (mass murder of young children at school) or on something uglier (race, wealth, media savvy) — we at least ought to recognize it when it happens, even if we know that we’re bound to keep doing it.

A most common anomaly

In his Sunday column in tomorrow’s New York Times, Nick Kristof tells the story of Ian Manuel and Debbie Baigrie. At age 13, Manuel shot Baigrie in the face in a botched robbery. Now 37, he has been in prison 24 years and has another 13 to go — which marks a reduction from his original sentence of life without parole. Baigrie went to bat for Manuel, unsuccessfully pleading for mercy at his resentencing. The two maintain what Kristof calls a “most unusual” and “incredible” relationship.

It is, indeed, a powerful story, especially with Kristof’s effort to show how Manuel’s upbringing put him on a path to commit such a horrible, impulsively cruel crime, and how his race doomed him to Florida’s ultra-harsh sentencing.

But this is hardly the anomaly that Kristof makes it out to be. Since 2008, when I started reporting on a case that I ultimately turned into the Kindle Single God’s Nobodies, I have collected stories like this, in which a victim — initially angry and vengeful — ultimately turns to forgiveness, or at least empathy. I’ve lost count of such stories, which often feature similarly context-free claims of novelty when a victim and her assailant reconcile.

This isn’t just because we have short attention spans. It’s also because we impose our own assumptions on how victims should act, rather than listen to them. And because we’re ordinarily bombarded with stories of victims seeking the ultimate punishment, complaining when courts disappoint them, calling for new laws and tougher penalties, all in hopes of punishing our way out of the hurt. There’s no denying these victims exist. But the other types get far less attention.

So it’s a good thing for Kristof, with his visibility, to describe Baigrie’s journey and her reasons for reconciling with Manuel. In my upcoming series on crime victims, I intend to start with an even more “incredible” and “unusual” tale, of a young man who committed a far worse crime at age 15, served nearly 24 years in prison (coincidentally, what Manuel has served so far), and who has been out of prison for more than four years living a productive life — with a “most unusual” advocate by his side, one who seeks to hold her daughter’s murderer accountable in ways that more years in prison would have failed to accomplish.