Prosecutors and Crime Survivors: How Can Prosecutors Better Address the Needs of Crime Survivors?
Date:  07-26-2019

Prosecutors urged to develop community partnerships, build community trust, develop trauma informed office practices, and expand trauma recovery and supports
From The Institute for Innovation in Prosecution report:


For most prosecutors, the main focus of their role is centered on whether the prosecutor achieves fair and just convictions. Yet, too little dialog surrounds the second aim of the prosecutor—preventing the suffering of the innocent. Moreover, many crime survivors cope with the impacts of crime without ever laying eyes on the prosecutor or receiving as much as a phone call from the prosecutor’s office. A prosecutor has an affirmative duty to represent the interests of all members of a community, including both those accused of crimes and those victimized by crime. Prosecutors swear an oath of office that they will faithfully and justly support and defend the laws of the community in which they work. The oath illustrates the quasi-judicial role of the prosecutor, one focused on neutrality and impartiality in executing their duties. Their role is not to prevail or to secure criminal convictions; their role is to openly seek justice—a task of great dimension and unlike the role of other lawyers. A prosecutor needs to maintain a degree of detachment from advocacy, as judges do, in order to properly fulfill their role in seeking justice. Although prosecutors bear an unparalleled degree of responsibility to all stakeholders in the criminal justice system, that responsibility has been too often quarantined to the courtroom. The traditional role of a prosecutor as confined to the courthouse and contained by a criminal indictment has proven far too limited and has failed to effectively address the needs of most victims or to advance public safety to its full potential. This paper proposes that to truly serve the interests of public safety and better address the needs of crime survivors, prosecutors must look beyond that traditional role and engage communities beyond the courthouse. Rather than relying on police or community members alone to address public safety problems outside of formally charged cases, prosecutors need to expand their role and take on new, nontraditional responsibilities. Although prosecutors must maintain their role in holding accountable those who commit crimes, they must also reimagine their service to survivors of crimes for whom formal criminal charges are never filed. At stake is not only public safety, but also the community’s trust in the legitimacy of our criminal justice and public safety systems. This paper discusses the current obstacles to supporting all victims, including those of uncharged crime, and the impact of those obstacles on victims themselves. It also suggests a path to better meeting the needs of all victims by embracing community partnerships, building community trust, 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.

As democratically-elected officials and chief law enforcement officials within their communities, prosecutors must strengthen trust with the communities that they serve. When community members—including those most impacted by crime—have faith in the intention and ability of prosecutors, they are more likely to report crimes and to work with the criminal justice system to resolve cases. By building trust within the community and seeking to better meet the needs of crime victims, prosecutors will ultimately strengthen their office’s legitimacy. This, in turn, increases prosecutors’ effectiveness in achieving the ultimate collective goal of public safety. A prosecutor is typically measured through a narrow lens focused on the number of prosecutions filed and convictions obtained. This practice has led prosecutors to focus only on a small percentage of crime, those cases in which a conviction is attainable. The failure to seek justice in all instances of crime is especially felt by low-income communities and communities of color that are disproportionately affected by crime and have limited access to legal resources or services. Aswad Thomas, a nonfatal shooting survivor who now advocates for crime survivors nationally, describes the impact:

At age 10, I lost my best friend in a senseless drive-by shooting in Highland Park [Michigan], where we both grew up. Afterward, we had no grief or trauma counselors in the community or at our school help us cope and heal after Reubin’s death.

Years later, in 2009, I lacked support again, when I was shot twice in an attempted robbery in Hartford, [Connecticut]. I had recently graduated from college and signed to play basketball professionally in Europe. Those bullets ended my basketball career. I suffered from depression, paranoia, PTSD, and had no place to turn for therapy or emotional recovery. … Too many crime survivors never receive the care and support they need.

Given this major gap in support for the majority of crime victims, the question is, “should prosecutors step in to fill this void?” The answer is a resounding yes. Focusing on the harm done to all survivors means not only helping to repair the bullet wound, but also the collateral impact of that harm—including the lost wages, the inability to care for other family members during recovery, the lasting intergenerational and community-wide impact of unaddressed trauma, and the chronic stress that too many survivors experience. It is also this crime survivor who, if better served, could possibly prevent the next violent act from occurring. If trauma were more quickly identified and acknowledged and treatment were more widely offered, perhaps there would be fewer victims in the first place.

Read the report here.