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Criminalizing Victims and Trauma

Yehudah Pryce: Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office ignores victims of crime until it’s time to punish them.
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TURNING POINT & DAAC PRESENT: JUSTICE-INVOLVED COMMUNITY SURVEY REPORT

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office (LADA) provided little support to justice-involved community members who have been victims of crime, according to a new survey of social service recipients at Turning Point (TP), a South Los Angeles nonprofit social service provider, and the DA Accountability Coalition (DAAC). The data gathered by TP appear to contradict claims by former Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey that social services and mental health needs significantly guide the LADA’s prosecution decisions.

The survey of 71 participants concluded that many community members who are formerly incarcerated – and have been most in need of social services and mental health care – did not have these service gaps sufficiently considered by the LADA when they were arrested, nor did they receive support from the LADA when they were the victims of crime.

LosAngelesCountyDistrictAttorney’sofficeignoresvictimsofcrimeuntilit’stimetopunishthem.

For example, according to the Pyzer Assault Attorney, over half of the participants are crime survivors and over 75 percent have a close friend or family member who is a crime survivor as well. There appears to be a strong correlation between being a victim of a crime and the need for social services, but over 70 percent of formerly incarcerated participants didn’t feel that their social services needs were considered before or after their sentencing. More alarming, over 85 percent of participants who were victims themselves, or who had a close friend or family member who had been victimized, did not feel supported by the LADA. In the absence of justice, vulnerable and marginalized communities suffer even more.

Community members who are crime survivors and who utilize social services are among the most vulnerable members of society, living at the intersection of trauma and mental health challenges. These community members often find that contending with a criminal legal system that treats them in an adversarial manner amplifies harm by undercutting their ability to access services intended for them by the social safety net. As this report indicates, the LADA – contrary to its claims – does not adequately assess the mental health and social services needs of community members it interacts with during the legal process and fails to provide justice to the victims within the communities most devastated by incarceration.

The Standards of Justice

“Theprimarydutyoftheprosecutoristoseekjusticewithintheboundsofthelaw,notmerelytoconvict…Theprosecutorshouldseektoprotecttheinnocentandconvicttheguilty,considertheinterestsofvictimsandwitnesses,andrespecttheconstitutionalandlegalrightsofallpersons,includingsuspectsanddefendants.” – American Bar Association, Functions and Duties of the Prosecutor

Serving as a minister of justice within an adversarial legal system, a district attorney has a special responsibility to “seek justice.” According to the American Bar Association (ABA), this means that district attorneys should consider the interests of both victims and the accused. They should “consider and, where appropriate, develop or assist in developing alternatives to prosecution or conviction that may be applicable in individual cases or classes of cases. The [district attorney’s] office should be available to assist community efforts addressing problems that lead to, or result from, criminal activity or perceived flaws in the criminal justice system…. The [district attorney] is not merely a case-processor but also a problem-solver responsible for considering broad goals of the criminal justice system.”

Photo: Tingey Injury Law Firm/Unspash

Photo: Tingey Injury Law Firm/Unspash

This ethical mandate is especially true in cases where it is not possible to categorically distinguish victims from alleged perpetrators – justice-involved and justice-impacted people are often victims of crimes. While these cases present challenges to elected prosecutors, who may feel political pressure to appear “tough on crime,” there is no exception to the prosecutor’s ethical mandate to “seek justice.”1 Each case is an opportunity for the district attorney to meet the standards of conduct articulated by the ABA, an opportunity to demonstrate that justice isn’t a cudgel to be wielded against whole classes of victims in marginalized communities.

Our Community

Turning Point (TP) is a community-based non-profit social service provider in South Los Angeles founded by Executive Director Michelle Perkins. As a formerly incarcerated African-American woman, Ms. Perkins seeks to empower her community through programming and job programs for formerly incarcerated community members. TP’s re-entry program utilizes an evidence-based, collaborative, whole-person care model to help recently incarcerated people successfully transition back into the community. Additionally, TP provides comprehensive mental health services, supportive services via court-approved programs, and Women’s Re-Entry housing to women transitioning back into society after incarceration. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated the racial disparities in Los Angeles County, TP has also been participating in the Returning Citizens Stimulus program to stabilize community members who have recently returned from incarceration.

The Status of Victimhood: Whose Trauma Is Recognized?

DAAC undertook this survey of TP’s justice-impacted community members to gain a deeper understanding of the intersection of mental health services, victimization, and the criminal legal system in Los Angeles County, and to aid TP in improving its social service delivery systems. TP’s Intensive Case Management Services (ICMS) Program Manager interviewed 71 participants who used supportive services from May to August 2020. 93 people were asked to participate in the survey, with 22 declining. 60 participants stated that they have previously been arrested and convicted of a crime. Participants were informed that the data gathered was intended for research purposes only, that their identity would not be revealed, and that the survey was intended to help assess community needs and advocate for justice reform and accountability if needed.

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Justice-impacted community members who utilize social service providers in Los Angeles may face a particularly pernicious form of complex trauma. Besides the trauma that naturally occurs as a result of the adversarial nature of the justice process and the brutal realities of life in jail, other studies have shown that anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of justice-involved community members suffered trauma prior to their incarceration. A history of trauma has been shown to increase a person’s likelihood of committing a violent offense by over 200 percent. Indeed, the failure to acknowledge an accused individual’s traumatic past during the criminal court process may compound mental health challenges.

Former DA Lacey has stated, “The criminal justice system needs to better treat people living with mental illness for a wide variety of reasons, as the current system is bad for taxpayers, public safety officers and most importantly, the people struggling with mental health issues.” The data from community members indicate that the LADA did not implement policies to adequately address these members’ mental health needs.

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From the perspective of community constituents, the LADA has not been practicing the community collaborative approach to justice that it preaches. Instead, the LADA has treated community members that become justice-involved – after suffering victimization and health/economic/mental health disparities – as “other” and deserving of harsh corrective punishment, thereby further marginalizing and exacerbating social services utilization and system involvement.

Our Voices Matter, Too

As part of the survey, some participants wished to provide TP with statements to give their responses more context. Representatives’ statements included the following:

“Predatorandprey.TheDAwasthepredatorandtookadvantageofmylackofknowledgeofthelawsandfearofjail.”

“…WhyarewepayingpeopletokeepBlackmenawayfromtheirfamilyandchildren,andjustsettingthem[up]foracycleofincarceration?The District Attorney is the reason for mass incarceration.”

“Mostly[district attorneys]trytoruinyourfuture.Iwas18asamanager,workingtwojobs.Theyjusttriedtoruinmylifeeven though it was my first offense. Oncetheythinkit’s[a]violentcrime,theyhave[no]sympathytowardsyou.”

“I’mastatistictothem.Anotherwayforthemtomakemoneyandpatthemselvesonthebackliketheyareprotectingthecommunity.Theydon’tcareaboutmeormycommunity.”

Photo: Milad B. Fakurian/Unsplash

Photo: Milad B. Fakurian/Unsplash

Transparency

Former DA Lacey stated that her goal was to “protect the public and to assist people in getting the mental health and other services they need to be productive members of our community…I am encouraging my lawyers to make courageous decisions and do the right thing…We must make informed decisions to ensure public safety and help another human being in crisis.”

However, the survey data indicate the limits of the LADA’s commitments. For example, does the LADA recognize the victimhood of those it accuses of crime? How does the LADA utilize its discretion to establish threshold qualifications for necessary mental health services? How do the mental health and social service needs of individuals – prior to their arrest and/ or afterwards – factor into LADA prosecutorial decisions?

Furthermore, it’s extremely difficult to determine the full scope of what is actually occurring due to the LADA’s opaque policies and practices. District attorneys have enormous discretion to make the data they choose to issue as transparent or opaque as they want it to be.

On December 7, 2020, the new District Attorney George Gascón was inaugurated and sworn into office. On that date, DA Gascón committed his office to providing support services to “both victims/survivors and children indirectly affected by violence and crime,” including the families of individuals killed by law enforcement. It is vital that DA Gascón’s promises be implemented and seen as a first step in creating an environment that truly supports all victims.

The new LADA needs a method of analysis that takes into account all victims’ experiences and an accurate assessment of communal mental health and social service needs in order to create an accountable metric that can be monitored for justice outcomes. This is a prerequisite to achieving justice and to creating healing in communities where brokenness has otherwise been neglected or actively exacerbated.

Conclusion

As the data reveal, the vast majority of surveyed community members who have interacted with the LADA express an experience that is completely at odds with what former DA Lacey proclaimed as her office’s mission. An entire class of crime survivors are being treated as if they are not now, and never have been, valued members of the community. They are treated as irredeemable, lacking even the potential to become meaningful members of the community. They did not feel that they had enough access to mental health and social services prior to incarceration. And they did not feel that mental health services were properly presented to them either as an alternative to incarceration or post-release.

The District Attorney’s goal should be to seek justice and to protect the public, but the findings suggest that the LADA’s office has failed to adequately consider justice-involved community members as part of the public that it serves. Instead, in violation of the ABA’s standards, the LADA’s office has treated the protection of the public as an us against-them dichotomy.

This dichotomy has been exacerbated by powerful structural systems that stigmatize community members with a scarlet-letter jail record, creating a criminal caste that is seen and treated by the justice system as being separate from the public and less worthy of care and respect. Structural policies are effectuated from the top down, and they must be remedied in the same fashion.

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Former LADA Lacey did not meet the justice needs of the community she served. The considerations described above must be priorities for new District Attorney George Gascón as he takes office.

Yehudah Pryce
District Attorney Accountability Coalition

Reference

  1. Epperson, M., & Pettus-Davis, C. (Eds.). (2017). Smart decarceration: Achieving criminal justice transformation in the 21st century. Oxford University Press.
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The District Attorney Accountability Coalition is a grassroots coalition of 20+ local organizations committed to educating and inspiring our communities around justice system reform. We aim to promote greater accountability within the Los Angeles DA’s office by educating our community on the power and discretion of DAs, as well as the culture and policies within the DA’s office. We also strive to elevate the importance of district attorney elections for voters who support justice for all.