Elevating Crime Victims’ Voices in Safety and Well-Being Investment

By: Matt Davis

Community Engagement Crime Interagency Collaboration Victims November 3, 2023

Bria Gillum, Senior Program Officer, Criminal Justice for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Aswad Thomas, Vice President of the Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ), appeared at The Atlantic Festival 2023 in Washington, D.C., in a talk entitled “How to Invest in Safety and Well-Being.” It was part of a session underwritten by the MacArthur Foundation on criminal justice reform.

Bria interviewed Aswad, who survived a robbery attempt that left him with two life-altering gunshot wounds, about his experience as a survivor of violence, and his journey to embrace the Trauma Recovery Center (TRC) model of addressing the needs of crime survivors, who often face the biggest barriers to accessing healing services.

After Aswad left the hospital with his gunshot wounds, there were no support services, or even information about where to look.

“My story might sound unique, but it’s not unique at all,” he said at the conference. “In this country, three million people are crime victims every year, but only nine percent of people get access to victim services.”

Thomas began organizing crime victims and advocating for victims’ rights, and today he is working to expand the ASJ’s national network of crime survivors to elevate their voices in criminal justice reform.

“When you think about the criminal justice system, the voices of crime victims like me have never been at the center of criminal justice policies,” he said. “One thing that we are trying to do is to elevate this new victims’ rights movement, this is calling for new safety solutions to help stop the cycle of violence.”

In addressing this need for advocacy, services, and resources, Aswad spoke about his organization’s TRC model as a “one-stop shop that provides you with all of the recovery services that you need, without all of the red tape.” The first center was developed at San Francisco General Hospital in 2001. Today, there are 52 TRCs in the United States.

He said community is at the heart of what ASJ does. “What we do is we build community,” Aswad said. “We build community with survivors, providing peer-to-peer support. We build community with law enforcement, with advocates, with legislators, and we build that community so that we can start having conversations around our public safety policies.”

Aswad shared some of ASJ’s accomplishments. “In the past 10 years, we passed about 91 criminal justice and public safety reforms across the country. We’ve changed victim compensation programs in about ten states. We’re helping to provide more protections for victims to be safe from employment protections and housing and protections.”

Another area of advocacy for ASJ is criminal justice reform. “Across this country, crime victims are now organizing to change criminal justice policies,” he said. “Past reforms have reduced incarceration and helped to incentivize more rehabilitation for folks who have caused harm. But also working on reforms to remove the barriers for people coming out of the justice system and back into our communities. We also passed laws, so [that crime victims can] access housing, jobs, education, things that help promote stability. Those are the things that help keep communities safe as well.”

In response to a question from Bria about what it means to be safe in your community, Aswad asked the audience to close their eyes and think about where they feel most safe.

“Is it a garden? Is it at church? Is it with family? Think about where you feel most safe. The majority of us in this room, I don’t think we say more police, or that we feel safe with more prisons. We feel more safe in community with each other. So that’s what we need to invest in, more Trauma Recovery Centers, more mental health programs, more solutions to help stop the cycle. That’s how we actually get to true safety in this country.”

You can watch the full conversation on YouTube.

Peer-Support Programs for Domestic Violence in Jail—A Starting Point

By: Katy Maskolunas

Human Toll of Jail Jail Populations Victims Women in Jail August 3, 2023

One in four women experience domestic violence in their lifetime. But three in four women who have been, or are, incarcerated have experienced it. Despite these disparately high rates among incarcerated women, jails too often lack organized domestic violence-specific services for women. Very few jails have programs to address women’s needs related to abuse and trauma. It is time to change that because more research shows providing such services is a good idea. They can help increase the success of reentry services and improve well-being. And that is an important part of efforts to reduce jail populations across the country.

Peer-support groups are the focus of a new report co-authored by survivors. It is a project of the National Center for Victims of Crime with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. Along with our panel of experts with lived experience, we convened a listening session to discuss how to create domestic violence peer-support groups in jails. The experts from this working group identified five principles to guide the development of domestic violence peer-support groups for women who are incarcerated. This is not an exhaustive list, but a starting point for engagement and implementation in institutions. We are hopeful that communities will want to partner with us to embed these principles.

Principle 1: The jail intake process should screen for whether a woman is a domestic violence survivor.

The intake process for women who are incarcerated should include an assessment to detect past domestic violence victimization, and jails should utilize gender-responsive assessment tools for this. Still, women who are incarcerated may not be ready to fully disclose their histories of domestic violence victimization when they arrive at a facility. Jails, therefore, should offer continuous opportunities for women to disclose information about their past.

Principle 2: Implement comprehensive and easily accessible compensation to peer domestic violence guides for their work. 

It is vital that women serving as domestic violence peer guides are compensated, financially or otherwise, for their service. Women should be compensated regardless of whether they serve as peer guides during or after their incarceration. Furthermore, work as a domestic violence peer guide while incarcerated, at a minimum, should constitute an internship with a partnering domestic violence program and qualify as requisite experience for a paid position with the organization upon release. Building relationships with external domestic violence organizations can also help institutions strengthen their policies around working with women who are survivors of domestic violence.

Principle 3: Supportive partnership and collaboration between peer guides and external domestic violence programs is needed. 

In addition to bringing domestic violence programming into jails, community-based domestic violence providers should train incarcerated victims and survivors to serve as peer guides. Community-based domestic violence programs should hire formerly incarcerated domestic violence survivors to work with domestic violence peer-support groups in jails and ensure that peer-support specialists receive just compensation. This duality of lived experience is necessary for peer guides to fully understand the traumas that have occurred before, during, and even after incarceration, and allows the guides to provide stronger and more relevant support for domestic violence victims who are incarcerated.

Principle 4: Ensure access to holistic care to treat the whole person.

Domestic violence peer-support programs in jails should engage holistically with incarcerated victims and survivors. Trauma is an emotional response to an intense event that threatens or causes harm. It is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope with the emotions involved with that experience. Educating incarcerated victims and survivors about trauma can help women realize that they are recovering from a serious stressor and learn more about their own stress responses and coping strategies, allowing them to build a sense of control over those responses. Trauma education can also minimize self-blame and build community among victims and survivors through a better understanding of their shared experiences. 

Principle 5: Correctional officers (CO) who transport women to and oversee domestic violence peer-support groups should be trauma-informed and trained on the dynamics of domestic violence.

The majority of individuals who interface with the criminal justice system, including jails, have been exposed to traumatic events, like domestic violence. However, institutional confinement, like jail, is not intended to house victims and often does not acknowledge or recognize that individuals involved in the criminal justice system are often victims before they committed their offense. Instead, incarceration is another traumatic event. Being locked in a cell is one of the most horrific, stressful experiences a person can endure. The act of locking another human being in a cell is also traumatic and potentially dangerous to the correctional staff. Incarcerated people and correctional staff alike are traumatized, forcing them to react to the world around them from a position of fear, making them more likely to respond with aggression. The trauma shared by staff and people who are incarcerated exists in a constant feedback loop in which no one feels safe.

Given the prevalence of preexisting victimization and ongoing trauma, especially in women who are incarcerated, jails need to embrace a trauma-informed approach and culture. A key part of creating this kind of environment is providing ongoing training to ensure that correctional officers understand the impact and prevalence of trauma and its pervasive effects on the brain and body, as well as the specific dynamics of domestic violence. Doing so can help to break the cycle of trauma for both women who are incarcerated and the staff who work with them.

The report would not have been possible without the expertise of our co-authors, Tanisha Murden and Rylinda Rhodes. We would like to thank them for sharing their knowledge, ideas, and experiences, as well as helping us create a more healing space for all survivors. We hope communities will find the recommendations in the report useful and explore implementing them in their policies. Just because someone is incarcerated does not mean they are not also victims of crime. In the case of domestic violence survivors, often the very actions that resulted in someone’s incarceration could have stemmed from self-defense or another means of escaping an abusive situation. It is incumbent on us, as a society, to support victims of crime in all circumstances.

Report

Pretrial Services Victims Women in Jail July 11, 2023

Implementing Domestic Violence Peer-Support Programs In Jail

Gabriella Alessi, Katy Maskolunas, Jocelyn Braxton, Tanisha Murden & Rylinda Rhodes

Domestic violence (DV), or intimate partner violence (IPV), is defined by the National Domestic Violence Hotline as a “pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.” Those who choose to control their partner believe that they have a right to control, monitor, restrict, intimidate, and harass their partner. This behavior is learned and a choice; it is never the fault of the victim. Power and control can manifest in many ways, including, but not limited to, physical abuse, spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, technology abuse, stalking, and emotional abuse. Domestic violence is one of the most prevalent crimes in the United States, with 1 in 4 women experiencing domestic violence during their lifetime1. Domestic violence accounts for more than 20% of the violent crime that occurs each year2. Domestic violence can affect any person, regardless of age, gender identity, ability status, economic status,citizenship status, race, or gender. Victims and survivors of domestic violence3 may present in many forms with their lived experiences and any past traumas they have experienced.

Pathways to Collective Healing: Law Enforcement and the Communities They Serve

By: Aviva Kurash

Policing Reentry Victims August 19, 2021

In the wake of calls to reevaluate public safety, the challenges of modern policing call for police agencies to build and maintain trust and legitimacy with the communities they serve and to work with community members as essential partners to identify problems and co-produce tangible solutions.

As strategic partners to the Safety and Justice Challenge, the IACP recognizes that promoting community-wide healing in the wake of trauma cannot be detached from the efforts to reduce jail populations and promote alternatives to arrest that uphold community safety. Trust, transparency, accountability, and safety are intertwined.

Policing happens in a dynamic environment. Policies, procedures, supervision, oversight, and accountability systems can help minimize the risk of high-profile events occurring or scandals arising. However, police agencies also need to be prepared to respond in the aftermath of these incidents to promote healing, recovery, and accountability. Police agencies that have trained officers to provide a trauma-informed response and promote comprehensive officer wellness are better able to constructively respond to the trauma of a high-profile incident.

This raises the question: how do we move forward? In 2016, the Office for Victims of Crime in the U.S. Department of Justice sought to explore what a path forward that embraces collective healing might look like, in the process developing a national demonstration initiative: Law Enforcement and the Communities They Serve: Supporting Collective Healing in the Wake of Harm (“Collective Healing”). The IACP was motivated to lead this initiative because we recognized that a strong foundation of understanding and collaboration must be in place between police and the communities they serve, prior to high-profile incidents, to ensure the deployment of effective responses in the wake of such incidents—when barriers, tensions, and stakes are often intensified.

Over the intensive four-year Collective Healing initiative, the IACP provided oversight, management, and national training and technical assistance to five law enforcement agency demonstration sites. Through partnerships with Equal Justice USA, Resilience Works, the Alliance for Safety and Justice and the Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice Initiative, PRO Wellness Services, and a range of other experts with experience in building trauma-informed systems through multi-stakeholder collaborations, the Collective Healing initiative supported law enforcement’s leadership role in adopting a trauma-informed culture and practice.

Themes Across Collective Healing Sites

The initiative’s intersectional approach focused on three interrelated components that are essential to fostering collective healing: 1) improving community-police relations and community wellness, 2) enhancing the access to and quality of victim services, and 3) improving officer and agency wellness and resilience. Specifically, this initiative elevated strategies that address institutional disparities, enhance victim services (with particular attention to reducing barriers to accessing these services in communities that experience a disproportionate burden of victimization), and promote comprehensive officer wellness and resiliency. Our resulting report from this project sheds light on both these preventative and reparative strategies.

Work with demonstration sites included developing, implementing, and assessing the practical tools necessary for building essential relationships and joint strategies to reduce tensions, maximize communication, promote trauma-informed interventions and problem-solving, and facilitate healing between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

The report outlining what we learned is designed to help law enforcement agencies create a victim-centered, trauma-informed, collaborative response, co-created with the communities that they serve. The report emphasizes meeting the needs of the most vulnerable after traumatic events, including communities that are most impacted by the criminal legal system and community violence, the responding officers, their families, and their agencies. These efforts are significant but represent only the early stages of what should be a long-term commitment to addressing complex and deeply rooted challenges.

The intensive work of the Collective Healing initiative over four years focused on creating a victim-centered, trauma-informed, collaborative response that meets the needs of those most vulnerable amid violence and traumatic events. In the wake of calls to reevaluate public safety priorities and strategies, we should bear in mind that working toward collective healing is a continuous process, involving both accountability and transparency, and which includes:

  • Trauma-informed policing
  • Leadership, culture, and operational capacity-building
  • Collaboration and community engagement
  • Victim services
  • Vicarious trauma and officer wellness

We look forward to sharing the lessons learned from this demonstration initiative as we continue to work with and learn from the sites in the Safety and Justice Challenge, and ultimately promote local justice systems that are both safe and just.

You can read the full report here.

Cumberland County, ME

Action Areas Pretrial Services Victims Women in Jail

Last Updated

Background & Approach

Cumberland County in southern Maine is the state’s most populous county and contains Portland, the economic center of the state. Cumberland County established Project Safe Release, a partnership between the pretrial service agency, the domestic violence resource center Through These Doors, and the jail to assist justice-involved women. The project assists justice-involved women and works to understand their histories of victimization. The program connects these women with essential services, risk and needs assessments, and trauma-informed safety planning.

Cumberland County continues to engage with the Safety and Justice Challenge Network to rethink and redesign its criminal justice system so that it is more fair, just, and equitable for all.

Lead Agency

Maine Pretrial Services, Inc.

Contact Information

Shawn P. LaGrega, Jen LaChance, Jenny Stasio

Partners

Through These Doors, Cumberland County Sheriff's Office

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