The Victim Card

Mark Obbie

January 12, 2023

A new playbook to counter tough-on-crime backlash.

A new playbook to counter tough-on-crime backlash.

One week before the end of a 2022 midterm election season in which Democrats resorted to hand-waving and denialism when confronted by a familiar foe — Republicans’ weaponizing of voters’ fear of rising crime — former-prosecutor-turned-reform advocate Lenore Anderson proffered a more coherent strategy. 

Alas, it came too late and in too obscure a place to influence last year’s campaigns. But it’s worth pausing to interrogate her thesis before Democrats double down on their standard response when accused of being pro-crime: trying to out-tough the tough-on-crime political right.

Tucked into the final pages of her new book, ”In Their Names: The Untold Story of Victims’ Rights, Mass Incarceration, and the Future of Public Safety,” Anderson writes:

Just as we cannot attain safety through mass incarceration, we also cannot end mass incarceration by reducing incarceration alone. While justice reform efforts often focus on reduced incarceration as the top metric, that is severely inadequate. Ending the legacy of mass incarceration cannot happen without actually providing everyone a meaningful and attainable right to safety.

What exactly that means is the focus of Anderson’s argument for a reimagined crime victims’ movement, one that marries standard criminal-justice reforms with enhanced crime-victim care and alternative modes of providing real public safety.  

At its core, the new movement seeks to anchor crime prevention in better, more comprehensive victim services. Anderson writes, “Providing victims of violent crime with meaningful help in recovering from the wide-ranging life effects of trauma renders them more stable, healthier and safer, as well as more trusting of a justice system that connected them to a center that made sure they did not have to face the justice system alone.”

The system worked for a vocal and privileged minority of victims and survivors, but not generally for people of color and people living in poverty who didn’t meet standards of victim perfection.

If that sounds like the central mission of the original victims’ rights movement, then Anderson has news for you. Much of her book centers on a critique of what went wrong with that original movement. That critique, made over the years by many others, boils down to this: the “cardinal sin” of linking most victim compensation and services to the prosecution of crimes. While that could make for compliant witnesses, it excludes the majority of crime victims, since most crimes are never reported or prosecuted. 

“Victims’ rights became the moral justification for expanding criminal justice power, but the resulting criminal justice bureaucracies have been largely incapable of providing protection and help to most victims of crime,” she writes.

The system worked for a vocal and privileged minority of victims and survivors, but not generally for people of color and people living in poverty who didn’t meet standards of victim perfection. This distortion is amplified by politicians banking on race and class resentments and a news and true-crime entertainment industry that prefers to tell oversimplified morality tales fitting neatly into a binary of bad people preying on innocent victims. 

What if that silent majority of crime victims — including those with complicated relationships with the law — could make themselves heard on the policies they’d prefer over abusive policing and excessive punishment? 

That question became Anderson’s focus, first at Californians for Safety and Justice and then at the Alliance for Safety and Justice. After leading the push in 2014 for California’s Proposition 47, which lowered penalties for a host of offenses, Anderson and the Alliance have helped to organize campaigns to launch publicly funded trauma care centers in multiple states. They have also convinced five states so far to ease restrictions on victim aid that bar help to people with criminal records or who are deemed uncooperative or complicit. Their chief tools of persuasion: busloads of the kinds of crime victims that lawmakers don’t usually hear from, camped out in capitol buildings, and a series of surveys refuting common assumptions about victims’ punitive bent. 

Echoing the public-health approach taken by street-outreach programs that use violence interrupters to halt the viral spread of violence, Anderson argues for embracing young people who have survived chronically traumatic environments.  Will this enlightened approach to victim services survive the recent surge in gun violence — and the resulting tough-on-crime backlash that crested in the 2022 political campaigns? That depends on what happens next. 

Seven years ago, I wrote about the skill advocates of punitive justice wielded in using victims’ supposed interests as a brake on criminal justice reform. That sales pitch was based in no small part on the (correct) observation that the people with the most at stake in violent, under-resourced neighborhoods are people of color, while claiming (wrongly) that the best available solutions come in the form of a clenched fist. 

This argument remains a potent counterclaim to reformers on the left. A couple of recent examples: 

  • The Manhattan Institute’s Hannah Meyers, writing last October on the looming “reckoning” with the left’s crime policies: “Left-wing criminal-justice policies aimed at elevating blacks have instead devastated collective efficacy in their communities.”
  • Andrew Sullivan, in an election-day declaration of his Republican allegiance from here on out: “It doesn’t seem to occur to Biden, for example, that violent crime and uncontrolled immigration affect poor minorities more than wealthy whites, jeopardizing their lives and wages.”

Responses from the political left since gun violence surged two years ago evolved from outright denial (they’re lying about crime on the rise) to distraction (it was worse 30 years ago) to whataboutism (let’s talk about wage theft). By assuming that any attention paid to increases in violence will necessarily feed the tough-on-crime policy machine, they play directly into the hands of right-wing critics, ceding to them the high moral ground of expressing care for Black victims’ lives.

That’s where Anderson and her ilk can change the terms of the debate, seizing the crime-victim banner by showing that more effective care for more crime victims — especially those we’ve historically shunned as part of the problem — constitutes crime prevention without the baggage of traditional punitive measures.

If politicians can be so easily stampeded from one policy extreme to another, as we have seen time and again, then maybe it really is time to replace top-down ideas with bottom-up solutions.

This is not to say that the Alliance for Safety and Justice agenda constitutes the entirety of victim-centered justice, or that Anderson’s book provides a fully objective assessment of this strategy. Several other groups provide advocacy and services in this arena. And a list of effective, evidence-based policing strategies, which get the barest of mentions in Anderson’s book, belong in any realistic definition of victim-centered public safety. 

Perhaps the biggest question mark looming over Anderson’s prescriptions is whether a more complete body of evidence will prove the effectiveness of community-based violence prevention programs and trauma-informed services to lower crime. Promising and seemingly deserving though they may be, the empirical case has yet to harden.

But Anderson’s ideas have logic and racial equity on their side. If politicians can be so easily stampeded from one policy extreme to another, as we have seen time and again, then maybe it really is time to replace top-down ideas with bottom-up solutions — and to ground the politics of crime in a set of arguments voiced by the people from the communities with the most skin in the game.