Victims Report Media Coverage

Monterey County Herald (California) — June 12, 2013

California crime victims want fewer people in prison, survey says

California crime victims have surprising views on criminal justice, according to the authors of a new survey, favoring rehabilitation programs over expanded incarceration.

In what is touted as the first comprehensive survey of the state's crime victims, the nonprofit Californians for Safety and Justice report more crime victims say we send "too many" people to prison rather than "too few."

The survey of 500 crime victims was conducted by San Francisco-based David Binder Research, and results were combined with data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Californians for Safety and Justice describes itself as a "campaign of Californians from all walks of life joining together to replace prison and justice system waste with common-sense solutions that create safe neighborhoods and save public dollars."

The survey's findings "reflect a different perspective than commonly understood about the views of California crime victims," the report states. "These views are not always reflected accurately in the media or around state policy tables."

Deborah Aguilar, founder of Salinas-based A Time for Grieving and Healing, lost her son to gun violence a decade ago and said the findings struck a chord with her.

When the survey asked whether crime victims prefer to invest more in drug rehab and mental health services than incarceration, "I would totally have checked it off," Aguilar said.

"I'm with the majority, giving them some help," she said. "Isn't it expensive to keep locking everybody up?"

Aguilar said she knows not all victim-survivors will agree and she didn't always feel this way.

Although her son's murder remains unsolved, in 2003 she sat in on the sentencing of a murderer, "getting prepared for when my family had their day." She said she was surprised when she felt compassion for the mother whose son was about to start a long prison sentence.

"I had a heart for the mother on the other side of the room," she said. "I didn't think I could feel that, but I did."

Victim services

Another of the survey's findings was that most California crime victims say they didn't know about services available to them, and the report's authors suggested counties should expand their community outreach to get out the word.

"We'll do public presentations to any group that wants to listen to us," said Pam Patterson, supervisor of the Monterey County District Attorney's Victim Assistance Unit.

She said her office helps victims with counseling and navigating the courts, and refers them to outside services.

"We help with anything they're dealing with, even PG&E," she said.

The office has a referral system set up with organizations in contact with crime victims, such as hospitals, crisis lines and shelters.

She said the county's 14 law enforcement agencies provide all crime victims they encounter with handouts listing victims' rights.

One obstacle to getting services to the people who need them is the high rate of unreported crimes, especially in rape and stalking cases.

"If they're not going to report to law enforcement, (police) are not going to give them the referrals," Patterson said.

Her office of five victim advocates assists 2,500 "brand-new, first-time victims a year," she said. "You give them your all. Then you give all that you have with that next client. You gotta do the best you can."

The office has lost two advocate positions since 2009, she said. But the county's Community Corrections Partnership recently approved funding for a new advocate to assist victims of "realignment category" offenders, lower-level criminals who are now the county's responsibility rather than the state prison system's.

According to the crime victims report, victims are in agreement with the two-thirds of California residents who think prisoner realignment is preferable to prison terms.

Chief Assistant District Attorney Terry Spitz said that wasn't surprising.

"For many of these property cases, probation is appropriate," he said. "We don't really have a quarrel with that."

Spitz said that when his home was burglarized by a juvenile, he "didn't want the guy to go to prison."

The survey found three-quarters of crime victims believe prison doesn't rehabilitate criminals and might make them worse.

Visiting prisoners

Aguilar said her eyes were opened when she recently visited one of the two state prisons in Soledad with two other women who spoke to inmates.

She said she didn't sugar-coat her experience, letting the inmates know how she and other parents feel when they lose a child to violent crime.

"I was mad. I told them it was like a punch in the gut. I said, 'You hurt me.' ... There were tears rolling down those faces."

She said she understood how the men ended up there.

"Thank God I didn't go out and hurt somebody," she told them, "'cause I wanted to. I could be right here, right now."

She said her heart was touched when one man told her, "I never knew the pain that I inflicted on someone else's mother."

Aguilar's experience seems to echo much of the survey's findings that the majority of the state's violent crime victims are young, poor people of color, a demographic often thought of as perpetrators of crime but far less often seen as victims.

"I can't forget where I came from," she said. "There but for the grace of God."

Although the report indicates most crime victims agree with Aguilar's desire "not to see prisons filled up with kids," she acknowledges some of her friends don't agree and "couldn't stand the idea" of spending a day in prison, face-to-face with convicted criminals.

"They say, 'How can you forgive?'" she said. "Well, I have to or else I can't survive."

Crime Victims' Survey

Key findings:

· Victims of violent crime in California are more likely to be Latino or African-American, younger than 30, and low income.

· One in five Californians reports being a crime victim in the last five years, and half of those crimes were violent.

· Two-thirds of the crime victims surveyed were victimized multiple times in the past five years, and most of those were Latinos.

· Three-quarters of crime victims surveyed are in favor of increasing investments in mental health and drug treatment rather than incarceration.

· Victims say they are unaware of most services to help them navigate the criminal justice system, and nearly half found the services "difficult to access."

Source: "California Crime Victims' Voices," Californians for Safety and Justice, June 2013.



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