Urban Wire What do victims want from criminal justice reform?
Leigh Courtney, Elizabeth Pelletier
Display Date

Media Name: gettyimages-539935586-victims-sentencing.jpg

Despite billions of dollars spent annually at the federal, state, and local levels, our correctional system continues to fail us in critical ways. It falls short not just in protecting public safety, but also in restoring the well-being of victims of crime.

This was brought into sharp focus by findings from the National Survey of Victims’ Views, released this week by the Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ). In this first-of-its-kind study, researchers surveyed more than 800 victims and found that, overwhelmingly, crime survivors want a criminal justice system that prioritizes prevention and rehabilitation over punishment. Among the highlights:

  • More than half of victims—6 in 10—would prefer a system that dealt shorter prison sentences and invested more resources in prevention and rehabilitation programs. This is true even among survivors of serious violent crime.
  • Another 6 in 10 want prosecutors to consider victims’ input on what would help them recover, even when that doesn’t include a long prison sentence.
  • By a margin of about 3 to 1, victims want to hold people accountable not just through prison, but also through rehabilitation, mental health treatment, drug treatment, community supervision, and community service.

There’s a clear gap between what victims want and what our criminal justice system delivers. The past few decades of tough-on-crime policies have built a system that typically favors punishment over prevention or rehabilitation and errs on the side of overincarceration.

The Urban Institute is midway through a major study of national trends in time served in state prisons since 2000, a measure of punitiveness that has received little attention in the conversation on tackling mass incarceration. Though our findings are preliminary, early trends indicate that we are only now beginning to see the full effects of the sentencing and release policies of the 1980s and 1990s.

Multiple metrics show that time served in state prisons nationwide has grown steadily over the past 15 years—and so has the proportion of people serving the longest prison terms. Predictably, this group is mostly composed of people convicted of violent offenses. In 2014, 85 percent of people serving the longest prison terms (above the 75th percentile) had been imprisoned for a violent offense, compared with just 54 percent of the entire prison population.

As these long prison terms stack up, states will continue to grapple with inflated prison populations even as they adopt policies that reduce prison admissions for less serious, nonviolent offenses.

At a time when policy conversations about criminal justice reform are narrowly focused on alternatives to prison for nonviolent crime, ASJ’s report highlights the need to craft alternative solutions for people who commit serious and violent crimes as well. We already know that long prison terms often fail to deliver on their promise to boost public safety through rehabilitation, deterrence, or even incapacitation. This new insight from victims suggests that long periods in prison also fail to help victims heal.

Insights from some of the survivors interviewed for ASJ’s report help explain why this may be. Many worry that long prison sentences will actually make people more likely to reoffend and perpetuate cycles of violence, particularly in low-income communities of color, where rates of victimization are highest.

Instead, most victims want a criminal justice system that gives people the help they need to stop hurting others and a chance to redeem themselves. A system less focused on punishment could also redirect its resources toward providing the medical, economic, and emotional support that most victims never receive.

Victims are calling for solutions that work for them, and relying solely on long sentences for violent offenses offers them little. We owe it to them to move beyond a “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality; we need to invest in approaches that work. And we can start by listening to what victims are saying.


Tune in and subscribe today.

The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Victims of crime Corrections Courts and sentencing Crime and justice analytics Restorative justice
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center