On October 8, the Vera Institute presented a panel at John Jay College of Criminal Justice called “Beyond Innocence.” All of the panelists discussed the idea of innocence, both in the law and in the public mind, and how that influences the way we treat victims who may fall outside the narrow definitions of innocence.The panel members included the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center’s Kenton Kirby, Chanel Lopez from the Anti-Violence Project, which serves LGBTQ populations, Kate D’Adamo from the Sex Workers Project, Maureen Curtis from Safe Horizon, and Rommell Washington from the Crime Victims Treatment Center at Mount Sinai.
The panelists in turn described current legal and cultural ideas of innocence. In many cases, it relates to positions of vulnerability, purity, and living within the law. Not all victims fit into that ideal of innocence, however. Many find themselves in a gray area of being both victim and perpetrator, or doing what they need to survive, stay safe, and care for loved ones, even if that involves actions outside of the law. Panelists presented examples of how this narrow definition excludes many victims from receiving services, protections, and compassion.
Kenton Kirby spoke about the Mediation Center’s Make It Happen program, which provides services for young men of color who have experienced trauma to help them heal and reach goals. He examined the current ideas of what it means to be a young man in a high-risk setting which seldom leaves room to show their needs, vulnerabilities, and sometimes victimhood. For young men in these situations it can often seem like there are few choices for safety and survival. He mentioned the responsibility that the legal system and the community have to provide choices that go beyond fighting or dying, and providing these choices and supportive services to people whether or not they fit the idea of “innocence.”
Chanel Lopez from the Anti Violence Project, an organization that serves an LGBTQ population and strives to build safety in that community, spoke about the challenges faced by many LGBTQ individuals including heightened risk for homelessness, poverty,and interpersonal violence. For example, police are less likely to respond appropriately to trans women who are victims of violence, and there is a severe shortage of space in shelters that have training and facilities to make it safe for LGBTQ people. Risks like exclusion from families, employment, and legal systems might lead LGBTQ individuals to be involved in informal or criminal alternative economies like sex work, causing them to lose credibility as victims.
Maureen Curtis from Safe Horizons, which serves domestic violence victims, talked about the traditional idea of a “good victim,” as someone who was physically hurt, was seeking to end the relationship with the abuser, who had not “provoked” the abuse and therefore “deserved” services and compassion. She mentioned that by even asking these questions, domestic violence workers could set up expectations or a culture that shuts out people who don’t conform to these standards. For example, victims who chose to stay with abusive partners might find themselves excluded or less valued. She also noted that criminal backgrounds often keep people who need services like housing or financial compensation from getting them, sometimes pushing them back into the margins.
All of the speakers agreed that language and definitions matter in the way we think about innocence, victimhood, and deserving care and service. They also mentioned that aspects of identity like race, gender, sexuality, or immigration status can alter the way victims are viewed.
In the question and answer period, panelists tackled subjects like policy and law, the ways in which people can be both victims and perpetrators, and how everyday people and the media can change the idea and the definition of innocence. Maureen Curtis from Safe Horizons emphasized that criminal justice is not the same as social justice, and that ideas need to change on both fronts for victims to get what they need and are entitled to. Kate D’Adamo from the Sex Workers Project suggested that a powerful way to change the public perception of innocence is to include stories and voices from victims themselves, putting human faces to the issue. Many panelists echoed the value of using personal narratives in journalism, community norm changing, and social media. By hearing a whole story, people can learn how individuals can be both victims and perpetrators.
For more information about these organizations, please see the links below.
Crown Heights Community Mediation Center
Main website: http://crownheights.org/
Make It Happen: http://crownheights.org/makeithappen/
Kenton Kirby blog post on Innocence for the Vera Institute: http://www.vera.org/blog/beyond-innocence-guilty-victims-have-suffered-too-and-deserve-our-care
Sex Workers Project