Memo to Prosecutors: Crime Victims Are Your Responsibility, Too

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Lucy Lang

Lucy Lang. Director of the John Jay Institute for Innovation in Prosecution

Legendary Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau, who died this weekend at 99, would often tell his assistant prosecutors: “Every case matters to the victim.” As far back as 1935, the Supreme Court enshrined the same point in a phrase that still resonates today.

The twofold aim of prosecution, the Court said in Berger v United States, was that “guilt shall not escape or innocence suffer.”

The current criminal justice reform movement has, rightly, focused largely on the unmet needs of people charged with crimes, and on prosecutors’ role in addressing these challenges. However, this should not distract attention from the other fundamental work of prosecutors’ offices, as both Morgenthau and the Court made clear: to care for community members who have been victimized.

Indeed, these groups are all too often one and the same. Research shows that victims and defendants often come from the same backgrounds and communities.

While impartiality is essential to prosecutors’ work, insufficient support for crime survivors undermines the ability of prosecutors to justly uphold the law and do their part in helping communities thrive. As we re-imagine the possibilities for a better system of American prosecution, the complex needs of crime victims must remain front and center.

Traditionally, prosecutors have been measured by the results of cases in which charges are actually filed, because in many jurisdictions across the country prosecutors are not notified that a given crime has occurred until after someone has been arrested. The systems by which prosecutors are notified of crimes—often an email or fax from the police department containing arrest information—mean that prosecutors focus their resources only on a small percentage of crime, leaving many victims’ needs unaddressed. And, of course, there are myriad crimes that are never even brought to the attention of police.

As a recent paper from the Institute of Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice argues, greater justice for crime victims requires reimagining the role of a prosecutor and reallocating resources.

This should include:

        • embracing community partnerships;
        • utilizing data;
        • developing expertise on the impacts of trauma;
        • expanding trauma recovery;
        • developing alternatives to traditional prosecution; and
        • utilizing the prosecutor’s voice to garner broad public support for change.

Lack of crime reporting and engagement is detrimental to public safety, and a lack of accountability for criminal conduct deepens mistrust of criminal legal institutions. Low crime reporting also means that many crime survivors never receive services to address their trauma.

Unaddressed Trauma and Re-victimization

Because many victims’ services are only accessed at the point of prosecution, limited numbers of victims gain access to counseling, compensation, or other forms of support to recover from the crime incident. Many victims are left to suffer from unaddressed trauma and to live in fear of being re-victimized, which can cause a lifetime of challenges, including economic or familial instability, mental health or substance abuse issues, re-victimization, and even future criminal involvement.

Low crime reporting is understandable. In some instances, engagement with the criminal justice system in the traditional model can actually worsen a survivor’s trauma. Survivors need a wide range of support and community resources, some of which can be provided by the prosecutors’ office. Yet there is no independently mandated government function to provide holistic support to victims of crime.

Many survivors of violence face substantial legal, financial, and mental and physical health issues that require long-term treatment. Instead of receiving the help they need to continue their lives, survivors often feel blamed by the justice system for their involvement or are treated as if they are at fault for their victimization.

Criminal legal reform should include developing systems that provide trauma-informed outreach to survivors of uncharged crime to offer services and support.

We are at a vital inflection point in criminal justice in this country. But as we grapple with the crisis of our criminal legal system, let’s heed the Supreme Court’s mandate and late Manhattan District Attorney Morgenthau’s wise counsel. We must not forget prosecutors’ obligation to use their considerable power to ensure that crime survivors are given the attention and support they need.

Lucy Lang is the Executive Director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She welcomes comments from readers.

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