What Crime Victims Really Think About Prison Sentences

What Crime Victims Really Think About Prison Sentences

Why you should care

Because prevention and rehabilitation help everybody.

Her 20-year-old son was dead, his murder related to his suspected gang activity. He’d been shot in the face and chest in an alley in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago. But three days later, rather than blame his killer, or encourage vengeance, Doris Hernandez did what might sound like the unthinkable: She forgave her son’s murderer — publicly.

A few years on, a debate is being waged over the nation’s criminal justice system, which locks up a larger percentage of its own citizens than any other major country in the world. Many states, from Utah and Texas to Georgia and Maryland, have passed reforms to reduce minimum sentencing laws while also saving taxpayer dollars. Still, legislation has stalled nationally, despite looking inevitable as recently as last December.

While lawmakers mull over the best way to achieve the prison system’s primary purpose — helping prisoners rejoin society while also making sure justice is served and public safety is kept — a surprising group has emerged in support of a kinder incarceration system.

More than 3/5 of crime victims prefer kinder prison sentences.

In particular, they support shorter prison sentences that spend more on prevention and rehabilitation programs than sentences that keep people in prison for as long as possible.

Not every victim wants a more mindful approach toward criminals, but the majority who do are driven by more than a charitable spirit. “Violence is a complex issue that requires a varied and coordinated response — much like treating a cancer patient with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation,” Hernandez says. Others, like Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), are less convinced, and describe federal reform bills as “criminal leniency.” “Comparing the state and federal prison populations is an apples-to-oranges comparison,” Perdue spokeswoman Megan Whittemore told Politico in April, arguing that federal prisons have fewer nonviolent offenders and could put ordinary citizens at risk under less-strict laws.

More than 800 victims were interviewed in the survey released by the Alliance for Safety and Justice in August, showing that victims overwhelmingly preferred an emphasis on rehabilitation over punishment and alternative options to prisons, such as treatment for mental health disorders and drug addictions. “It’s counterintuitive,” says ASJ president Lenore Anderson. “The majority of crime victims are saying what everyday people would say: That prisons are more likely to make people worse.”

That sentiment matches the experience of many behind bars, says 30-year-old Christopher Zoukis, an advocate for the incarcerated who is, himself, serving out the final years of a decade-plus sentence in federal prison. “We need to focus on rehabilitation, not just of drugs and alcohol, but of social [roles],” Zoukis told OZY, looking to the example of countries like Scandinavia. “In that model, people go to prisons, but they keep working. It’s like life with training wheels, albeit monitored by supervision officers.”

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