Victims and survivors of violent crime are not a monolith. Indeed, the very nature of crime makes every individual experience unique. Those of us who advocate for criminal justice reform often come under attack for supposedly being insensitive to or disconnected from victims and their families.
These critics are of course right that victims and survivors of violence deserve to have a voice in both their own cases and on matters of policy. But these same critics risk silencing victims when they assert that any efforts at reform are an insult to victims. After all, many survivors of violent crime are staunch advocates for reform. They have a right to opine on what policies and budget priorities will prevent other families from experiencing the same tragedies they’ve experienced. They have a right to stand up to barbaric or draconian policies that politicians proffer in the name of victims, but do not represent their views about what is just or provides closure.
I have been thinking about my own family’s experience with violent crime. I write this column on Yom Kippur, the day on which, as a Jew, I think more than usual about both atonement and forgiveness. Last month, I went to the funeral of my uncle Jerry, who died from a medical condition and was buried beside his daughter, my cousin, who was laid to rest more than 28 years ago. This past week, my cousin Michelle would have turned 48.
Michelle was 19 when she was killed in a brutal attack in her apartment. She was just starting out, hoping to work with youth in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. She was a strong and talented swimmer and taught kids at the local YMCA. I was 13, and Michelle and her younger sister were my only cousins, whom I visited in New Mexico or saw at our grandparents’ home in Arizona quite frequently. I looked up to my older cousin. I loved seeing her. I miss her.
Her father outlived his daughter by 28 years. As a parent myself now, it is a devastating thing to imagine. My cousin’s killer, who also killed Michelle’s 17-year-old friend, will live the rest of his life in prison. And that is the fate I wish for him.
At my uncle’s funeral, I mourned not only his passing, but also the life he lived as a parent who lost his child and discovered her body. I can really only imagine; he and I did not talk about it. I do not presume to be a direct survivor of violent crime, but I have been much closer than I would ever wish.
My uncle spent much of his time seeking and photographing beautiful moments in nature and teaching others how to capture beauty. He and my aunt created a rose garden at their synagogue in Michelle’s memory. Who wouldn’t find a way to escape those memories, that ugliness? How else could such a parent survive at all? My uncle was the embodiment for me of the grief and trauma of that kind of loss. At 13, I saw him—one of the most masculine men I knew—sob uncontrollably and without inhibition.
The last time I saw Jerry was in 2016 in Albuquerque where he lived. I was there for a conference and stopped by the local jail to tour a charter school named after another deceased relative who had coordinated educational and other programs in the jail. I saw students in the segregation unit and visited the reentry campus for those individuals who left the jail but wished to complete their high school degree.
Jerry and I talked about my visit, and he shared that he, too, had visited and had positive feelings about the program. He spent much of his career in the criminal justice community as a forensic photographer, and also knew our relative who worked in the jail and for whom the charter school is named.
Nuance. Humanity. Jerry saw the value in such programs for people who committed crimes. I don’t claim to know Jerry’s views on criminal justice reform. I know he, my aunt and surviving cousin accept me and the work I do. I know they are compassionate and thoughtful people.
What survivors want most is to have their loved one back. Or for the fear or pain never to have happened. No amount of punishment will make that happen, even if some punishment will of course serve other important aims. Indeed, there are victims and survivors who believe in second chances or restorative practices or rehabilitation programs. One can have experienced violence and still oppose torture, solitary confinement, the death penalty, juvenile life in prison without parole. It is victims and survivors who see directly the impact of drugs and gaping void of mental health services. Many victims come from the same under-served, under-resourced communities that their assailants come from.
Experience with violent crime can of course engender empathy for others, including those in the criminal justice system who face violence themselves. As someone who for months as a young person imagined the horrific violence my cousin endured, and who saw the pain and trauma inflicted on an entire family, I came to abhor all forms of violence.
After seriously considering a career as a prosecutor to combat the kind of violence my family suffered, I gravitated to work that addresses the violence inherent in the criminal justice system itself: Prison conditions that create both violence among those incarcerated there or self-inflicted violence, violence inflicted by staff in such facilities and police use of force that too often targets people of color but causes trauma in every instance. There is also prolific psychological violence inflicted on people in prison deprived of mental health services or forced to spend months, years or decades in solitary confinement.
We do not honor victims by speaking for them. I do not presume to speak for them here. I only have my own experience. But neither should we presume victims wish to victimize those accused of violent crime, or even those convicted of violent crime. Violent-crime survivors have an enormously important perspective, and that perspective is varied and nuanced. We owe it to them to listen.
San José Spotlight columnist Aaron B. Zisser is Interim Executive Director of the Oakland Community Police Review Agency and the former San Jose Independent Police Auditor. He previously worked as an attorney with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and a consultant to Bay Area police and jail oversight entities. His opinions are his own. His columns appear every first Friday of the month. Contact Aaron at [email protected].
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