Each year, millions of people across the United States are victims of crime. Victims offer a critical perspective in criminal justice reform efforts but are often overlooked or assumed to be opposed to reform. In fact, many victims support a variety of justice system improvements, including expanding opportunities for rehabilitation and investing in education rather than just incarceration.
People of color, young people, and people living in low-income communities are disproportionately affected by crime and deserve an especially strong voice in these conversations. Research also shows many people who have committed crimes have been victims of crime themselves. Ensuring all victims have the opportunity to share their experiences and preferences is critical to improving the justice system.
Several states have taken steps to improve accountability to victims through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). With technical assistance funded by the initiative, states examine factors driving their corrections and supervision populations and costs, develop and implement policies to address these drivers, and use anticipated or actualized savings from the JRI process to invest in strategies to improve their justice systems.
Engaging victims, advocates, and service providers in policymaking
Our brief describes how states engaged in JRI have used its consensus-based approach to engage victims in the policy development process. Many states have formally included victims, victim advocates, and service providers in their JRI work group, a team of policymakers and other stakeholders tasked with developing policy recommendations to present to state legislatures.
Most workgroups have held roundtables with victims, advocates, and service providers to learn about their priorities and share takeaways with their state’s task forces to inform policy development. Through these initial steps in the JRI process, states have worked directly with victims, advocates, and service providers.
Implementing policies to improve accountability to victims
How are states participating in JRI improving accountability to victims? Some strategies include:
- Investing savings in services for victims of crime. Oregon dedicates at least 10 percent of its JRI savings annually to community-based victim services and programs, totaling more than $9 million from 2015 to 2019. Its JRI bill allocates funding to nonprofit organizations that support victims in marginalized communities, seek to reduce cultural barriers to services, and expand access to trauma-informed practices.
- Improving restitution collection and increasing compensation payments to victims. Hawaii created a database and established 22 new victim service positions to track restitution payments and streamline restitution collection, increasing victim restitution collection by 70 percent from 2013 to 2016.
- Keeping victims informed as the people suspected of committing crimes against them move through the justice system. South Dakota invested $800,000 in its first year and $100,000 a year for the next nine years (PDF) to create a statewide automated system to notify victims when the person suspected of committing the crime against them is arrested, has court appearances and parole hearings, and is released from prison.
- Improving training for people working with victims to increase protection, address trauma, and improve violence intervention. In Oklahoma, H.B. 2284 requires the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training to train law enforcement on personal safety planning for victims before their cases go to trial.
Continuing to address gaps in victim services
Despite progress, states could consider several policies and practices to better address victims’ diverse needs:
- Periodically conducting needs assessments to accurately capture victimization trends and assess the effectiveness of and gaps in victim service funding.
- Offering a wider range of victim services, including recovery, healing, and restorative justice.
- Targeting services and funds to victims who face the greatest barriers to access and are disproportionately affected by crime.
- Reducing the many barriers to restitution and compensation for victims who do not report the crime within a certain time period or at all, victims for whom restitution is not requested or awarded, and, in some states, victims who have committed crimes themselves
Improving accountability to victims makes the justice system more equitable and fair. Whether states are engaging in or considering JRI or are pursuing other justice system improvement and reinvestment efforts, victims, advocates, and service providers deserve a voice—one that is not only heard but also translated into substantive policy changes that address all victims’ needs.
To achieve justice, decisionmakers must work to mitigate the harms victims experience, help them recover and heal, and prevent future harm. This begins with meaningful reform.
Although people who have experienced crime and their advocates are often referred to as “victims” and “victim advocates,” respectively, we recognize that some prefer the term “survivor” because they find it more empowering and reflective of recovery and healing. We also recognize that victim advocates may be victims and survivors as well as advocates. Though we use “victim” here, we respect the preferences of people who identify as victims or survivors of crime.
This project was supported by Grant No. 2019-ZB-BX-K004, awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the SMART Office. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Updated to include funder disclosure (10/14/20).