It’s Time to Start Really Listening to Crime Victims and Survivors

An elected district attorney once told me that they tell families of homicide victims to “find salvation in your therapist or your church or your family, because you aren’t going to find it in the courtroom.” Our system of criminal justice does what it can to assist victims with their healing process, but it is simply not built to address their needs. The punishment of offenders and the healing of victims are often two very different things. And while I respect the bluntness of that DA’s advice, I think we owe victims more than a reality check about what happens in most courtrooms.

Mike Schmidt speaking with a woman and her dog
Mike Schmidt (right)

As Danielle Sered beautifully describes in her book, Until We Reckon, most survivors are led to believe the only option they have for healing is seeing the punishment of the person that hurt them. That might work for some victims, but for others, it simply imposes the prosecutor’s desire for punishment over the victim’s own wishes.

Prosecutors need to start having a new set of conversations with victims and survivors to reset expectations. It’s time we stop telling victims what we think will heal them, and actively listen to what victims and survivors say they need to heal.

When I was a deputy district attorney in Multnomah County, I heard from victims of crime who were all over the spectrum in what type of result they wanted to see from the justice system. Some wanted the offender to spend a long time in prison. Others wanted to ensure that the offender never committed a crime again, and that the issues driving their conduct were addressed. Many victims and survivors I spoke with just wanted to move on with their lives. Many had questions for the person who hurt them, like “Why did you do this?” or “Why me?”

It has always bothered me that our criminal justice system was not built to get victims the answers they seek. Sadly, ten years after I started having these conversations, this part of our system still hasn’t been fixed. Too often, the only thing we offer victims of crime is separation from and punishment of the person who harmed them.

It’s time for the Multnomah County District Attorney and prosecutors across the country to consider restorative justice programs for crime victims who opt for them.

Simply put, restorative justice means repairing the harm caused by a crime — in addition to or instead of more punitive measures.

If elected, I intend to ask victims and survivors “What do you need to heal?” Restorative justice should be a central part of criminal justice reform in Multnomah County in 2020.

Why?

Because helping victims heal is the right thing to do.

Mike Schmidt talking with people and a child
Mike Schmidt (left)

Extensive research shows that when victims are offered more options, their satisfaction with our justice system goes up. That helps drive the public’s confidence in the system’s legitimacy. It’s something our criminal justice system sorely needs at this moment in history.

When the justice system is seen as illegitimate and unresponsive, when we talk at victims and survivors instead of really listening to what they tell us they need to heal -- and when we don’t give victims and offenders more meaningful opportunities to engage -- it allows violence in our community to continue unabated. That makes all of us less safe, and ultimately creates more victims.

There is good work happening locally. In Multnomah County, the Community Healing Initiative (or CHI) works with victims of crimes and youth in the criminal justice system to provide mentorship, culturally appropriate community support, and opportunities to heal. CHI works because it’s a partnership between the County and local community organizations, like Latino Network and Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center (POIC). As District Attorney, these are exactly the kinds of programs my office will work to support.

It's time to take healing survivors seriously. We need to stop pretending the only things we can offer are punishment or nothing.

It’s the smart thing to do. It’s the right thing to do. And it will make our justice system serve all the people of Multnomah County better.

Candidate for Multnomah County District Attorney