All Victims Should Receive the Support and Services They Need
We must prioritize providing for the needs of violent crime victims. All such victims—regardless of race, class, gender, prior criminal history or their views on capital punishment—should receive the support and services that they need to rebuild their lives when the worst possible thing imaginable happens.
The limited resources designated for violent crime victims are inadequate and often do not get to victims who are in need of support. African American men between the ages of 17 and 29 are all too often among those who do not have access to these services and support for victims of crime.1
Just as troubling, surviving family members who oppose the death penalty often find that their opposition to capital punishment leads to being treated with less dignity and respect. They often have to fight for the basic victims’ rights that they legally have.
In the aftermath of my father’s murder, I benefited from the work of victims and survivors before me who had demanded that their needs be recognized and their voices heard.
But in the years since, I have learned that these hard-won benefits are too often unavailable to victims if they oppose the death penalty. Whether this is because victim’s advocacy offices operate under the auspices of the prosecutor or because an assumption exists among advocates that all family members of murder victims will want the perpetrator executed, the result is the same. Too often, family members who oppose the death penalty are silenced, marginalized, and abandoned, even by the people who are theoretically charged with helping them...
- Renny Cushing in the forward to Dignity Denied: The Experience of Murder Victim Family Members Who Oppose the Death Penalty by Renny Cushing and Susannah Sheffer, first published in 2002 © Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights.
The death penalty can cause secondary trauma to the victims and their families. While proponents of the death penatlty often argue that the practice brings justice and closure to victims' families, studies show that the death penalty can actually cause additional harm to these families. The necessary but lengthy appeals process forces families to repeatedly relive pain, families who oppose the death penalty feel discriminated against by the criminal justice system and prosecutors, and families of victims often feel that the death penalty itself places value judgments on the worth of their loved one. Most disturbingly , in cases where the offender and victim were related, the death penalty causes the family to be doubly traumatized by two deaths -- one at the hands of their family member and one at the hands of the state..2
Every victim deserves respect and access to all of the necessary services and support to begin to rebuild their lives.
Every Victim Deserves Respect
Every victim’s feelings and views regarding capital punishment must be respected. There are no “good victims” and “bad victims.” Victims must speak for themselves in their own voice. No one should tell victims what they need, including what will help them heal.
The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty recognizes that the root of the problem posed by capital punishment is the fact that someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, daughter, son, cousin, aunt, uncle, grandmother or grandfather has been murdered. As a result, the National Coalition has been committed to ensuring that the work to end the death penalty results in a better outcomes for victim family members as well as more focused resources and attention on those activities and policies that will make our communities safer.
The National Coalition created the Rachel’s Fund Program in memory of Rachel King, a long-time activist who empowered victims to become some of the most powerful voices against the death penalty.
The goal of Rachel’s Fund is to shift the culture of advocacy against the death penalty. It begins with a deeper understanding of the experiences and harm suffered by victim family members in the aftermath of murder. It ends with concrete efforts to improve the understanding of the public and policymakers about the need to increase services and support for victims.
Rachel's Fund Recommended Resources
Techniques for Engaging Those Who Have Experienced Traumatic Grief
Resources for Crime Victims
National Organization for Victims Assistance
State List of Victims’ Advocacy Groups
State List of Victims’ Compensation Information
Resources on Restorative Justice
Restorative Justice is a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reparations and reconciliation with victims and the community at large.
For more resources on restorative and other alternative forms of justice visit:
What is Restorative Justice? from Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth
Resources for Addressing Harm, Accountability, and Healing from Critical Resistance
What application does restorative justice have in the highly-charged, adversarial context of death penalty cases? Is it possible to do more to engage the families of homicide victims in these cases and in doing so, to help address their needs? What can and should the defense team do in these situations?
In a capital case, victims may receive assistance from victim assistance programs, often associated with the prosecution. However, what they frequently also need is information from the defense as well. In the past two decades a field has emerged that is sometimes called Defense Initiated Victim Outreach (DIVO) or Defense Victim Outreach (DVO). DIVO/DVO provides trained victim liaisons to serve as a bridge between victims and the defense team to answer questions, provide information, and generally assist victims to address their needs as they define them.
DIVO/DVO is not usually full restorative justice, but it is informed by restorative justice principles. Although it has been very helpful to many victims, it is challenging, risky and controversial work. In this webinar, Addressing the Needs of Victims in Death Penalty Cases: The Role and Responsibility of the Defense, three pioneers and leaders in the field describe the work and some of the possibilities and challenges.
The National Coalition is proud to partner with several exemplary victims advocacy groups:
Mothers in Charge
Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights
Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation
1 Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report: Black Victims of Violent Crime, by Erika Harrell, Ph.D., U.S. Department of Justice 2007 (http://bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/bvvc.pdf)
2 The Collateral Anti-Therapeutic Effects of the Death Penalty. Cynthia F. Adcock Copyright (c) 2010 Florida Coastal Law Review; Cynthia F. Adcock
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