In May 2023, in his inaugural address as mayor of Chicago, Brandon Johnson said, “The tears of Adam Toledo’s parents are made of the same sorrow as those of Officer Preston’s parents.”
Johnson was referring to the deaths of Chicago police officer Areanah Preston—killed in cold blood by a group of violent young criminals—and Adam Toledo, who was fleeing police at two in the morning after he and a companion were caught firing guns at passing cars. Officer Preston was murdered while returning home after a long shift spent protecting the people of Chicago. Toledo had an illegal gun in his possession and was killed while ignoring a police officer’s commands to stop.
Not that long ago, reasonable people would have seen Mayor Johnson’s efforts at moral equivalence as despicable—and Johnson would likely have known it and would have stopped short of saying what he said. Today, such statements are commonplace, even among public officials charged with upholding the law and protecting the public, local and federal prosecutors most notably. Our adversarial justice system is meant to ensure a balance of interests. Prosecutors build a case to seek justice for victims; defense lawyers protect the rights of the accused. Of late, however, progressive prosecutors have upended that balanced system of justice in favor of embracing the notion that both the perpetrators of crime and the people upon whom they prey are all equally victims.
As California’s Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price told a local CBS News reporter, “often what studies have shown—and it’s true in Alameda County—many times people who are perpetrators or labeled as perpetrators were actually victims.” Price recently gave an 18-year-old linked to three murders a plea deal that would have had him serve only a handful of years in juvenile detention due to the fact that the killings had been committed when he was younger—even though a judge urged that he be tried as an adult given his “extensive and violent criminal history in multiple jurisdictions.” A leaked memo revealed that Price had told prosecutors in her office to seek probation rather than jail time for most crimes, including violent felonies.
Conscientious prosecutors who have found themselves working under these new approaches are fleeing jobs in departments where DAs like Price have failed to pursue justice for victims. Danielle Hilton, who had been a prosecutor in Alameda County for almost 30 years, put it starkly in her resignation letter: “Victims deserve better.” As she wrote to Price, “I have spent my career picking up the pieces and gathering the fragments of lives shattered by violence. I encourage you to look at crime scene and autopsy photos, meet the victims of the robberies, sexual assaults, home burglaries and other crimes within the county. It is their voices you were elected to empower.”
In May 2023, another long-time Alameda County prosecutor, Assistant DA Butch Ford, also resigned, citing Price’s unwillingness to do her job—as well as the fact that when she arrived, she “demoted almost every Caucasian male in the office and stated, ‘the Blacks are taking over.’” Ford, like his colleague, told Price, “You have abandoned the victims of crime in this county.” Price’s policies, he said, “have led to violent offenders celebrating the lack of consequences in Alameda County.” He described how, at a rally that Price attended, “a recently paroled killer stated, ‘We gettin’ out left and right. We can do whatever the f—k we want out here.’”
It’s not just California. In May, Cook County prosecutor Jason Poje wrote an outraged letter of resignation from his position as assistant state’s attorney in Illinois. “The simple fact is that this State and County have set themselves on a course to disaster,” the letter said. Poje noted that communities have been endangered by policies such as “bond reform designed to make sure no one stays in jail while their cases are pending with no safety net to handle more criminals on the streets, shorter parole periods, lower sentences for repeat offenders . . . overuse of diversion programs, intentionally not pursuing prosecutions for crimes lawfully on the books.” These and other such notions have upended the foundations of the adversarial justice system. “Once we decide that it’s worth risking citizens’ lives to have a little social experiment,” Poje wrote, “that balance is lost.”
The recent effort to sideline the needs of victims in favor of emphasizing the plight of criminals is part of a broader change that began decades ago. I’m speaking of the flourishing of a victimology culture that confers moral and social status on anyone claiming victimhood. As Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning have argued in their 2018 book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, a victimhood arms race has broken out in which individual behavior is subsumed beneath claims that one has been wronged—all to achieve higher moral status and escape personal responsibility.
This culture has warped our understanding of what a victim really is. As victimhood expands to incorporate new groups and classes of protected people, not all of whom deserve the status of victim, the moral weight of victimhood has been diluted—and with it, society’s obligations to seek justice for real victims.
How did we get here? The story arguably begins with the work of another former Alameda County district attorney: Earl Warren. In the decades after Warren was sworn in as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953, he helped launch a revolution in criminal procedure, most notably with regard to the validity of evidence gathered in an unconstitutional search (Mapp v. Ohio, 1961), the obligation to provide counsel to defendants (Gideon v. Wainwright, 1963), and law enforcement’s obligation to inform those under arrest of their rights (Miranda v. Arizona, 1966), among many other cases. The Court effectively tilted the balance in criminal law toward a focus on the rights of the accused. Although wildly unpopular among Americans at the time, such rights are now largely embraced by the public and even by most conservative jurists.
In the decades that followed, in popular culture, particularly on television, the new rights guaranteed by the Supreme Court became standard. When then–Chief Justice William Rehnquist upheld Miranda rights in a 2000 decision, he noted how the reading of rights to suspects had become ubiquitous on network-television crime shows. As Broadcasting & Cable Magazine editorialized at the time, “next to the Pledge of Allegiance, the Miranda rights may be the most familiar common litany of the baby boomer generation, thanks to TV.”
Similarly, advocates for a rehabilitative model of criminal justice (as opposed to deterrence and incarceration) gained new support during those years for the idea that crime was largely an expression of environmental factors such as poverty—thus downplaying personal responsibility and arguing that imprisonment should be a tool of last resort. The Prisoner Rehabilitation Act of 1965, for example, granted federal prisoners broader rights to furloughs and work-release programs and created halfway houses placing newly released inmates in communities. In 1963, the infamous Alcatraz prison was shuttered, a symbol of an earlier, harsher age of incarceration
Then came the social upheaval of the 1960s counterculture, with its mistrust of authority (especially the police), increased drug use, and the breakdown of traditional families. All of this undermined existing law-enforcement efforts. Crime rose precipitously, particularly in large cities, and by the 1970s a backlash against soft-on-crime policies was underway. It received a significant boost from Robert Martinson’s 1974 report, “What Works? Questions and Answers About Prison Reform.” Summarizing his findings in the Public Interest, Martinson offered a tough verdict: “With few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism.” Crime was rising because the policies that claimed to change criminal behavior had failed to do so. As Martinson’s report concluded about the rehabilitative approach: “Nothing works.”
Another part of the backlash against soft-on-crime policies was much-needed attention finally given to victims. States passed laws allowing victims to read victim-impact statements during sentencing procedures, for example, and statutes such as New York’s 1978 “Son of Sam” law attempted to prevent criminals from profiting from their crimes.1 Congress passed a federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act in 1984 as well as a Victims’ Rights and Restitution Act, and most large cities and states established crime-victim compensation funds. Following along the same backlash pattern, the 1980s and 1990s saw tougher sentencing and “three-strikes” laws, supported by majorities of the public.
Yet even as tough-on-crime measures took hold, the idea that blame and responsibility for criminal behavior should be shared by society never fully receded, particularly among legal scholars and decarceration activists. Poverty, addiction, chaotic neighborhoods, lack of resources, mental-health issues—all the things once regularly and correctly cited as “risk factors” for criminal behavior were now more likely to be referred to as “root causes.”
The change in language is significant.
If something is the cause of a behavior (rather than merely a “factor”), individual responsibility becomes less predominant in the calculus of accountability. In this new rendering, the perpetrator of crime is trapped in a Skinner box of social dysfunction that makes the exercise of judgment and free will difficult if not impossible—and thus he cannot be held responsible for his actions. This was a seductive idea to those who remained skeptical of the criminal-justice system, even as it overlooked the obvious fact that most people who grow up in high-risk environments don’t become criminals, and plenty of people who grow up with privilege do.
Alongside this focus on “root causes” for crime was a broader self-help movement that also contributed to the notion that, because of circumstances, people could not always be held accountable for their behavior. The phrase “hurt people hurt people” emerged in the 1990s, initially among self-help gurus (a book with that title by self-help author Sandra Wilson was published in 1993) but quickly spread into popular culture—along with the idea that even perpetrators of harm should be understood as potential victims.
By the 2000s, criminal-justice reformers regularly invoked the “victim-offender overlap” theory—the fact that many victims of crime are also perpetrators of crime—to argue for more lenient consideration of criminal acts. It is true, as the National Institute of Justice notes in a 2021 report, that “statistically, being an individual who has committed violent crimes correlates with an elevated risk of later becoming a victim of violent crime. At the same time, violent crime victims have been shown to be more likely than others to later engage in violence.”
The error is introduced when advocates and leading legal theorists treat this as a deterministic certainty, one that should override personal responsibility. Stanford University professor Barbara Fried2 argued in a 2013 symposium, “Beyond Blame,” that “the philosophy of personal responsibility has ruined criminal justice and economic policy. It’s time to move past blame.” Imagine being the victim of a brutal assault and hearing that one should just “move past blame.”
Likewise, law professor Adam Benforado argued in his 2015 book, Unfair, “Our surroundings often exert such a powerful influence that they all but erase the effects of disposition.” New research into brain science has prompted biologists to add their own insight to the challenge of free will and responsibility. Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky argued this: “Our growing knowledge about the brain makes the notions of volition, culpability, and, ultimately, the very premise of the criminal justice system, deeply suspect.”
Embracing the idea of deterministic social forces as exculpatory for perpetrators compromises justice for victims. Indeed, a new revisionist impulse to question or erase victims is already underway in academic circles. A symposium sponsored by the Brooklyn Law Review in 2022 showcased this approach in its title: “The Role of the ‘Victim’ in the Criminal Legal System.” Note the scare quotes around the word “victim.”
Writing about the victim-offender overlap, Cynthia Godsoe, of Brooklyn Law School, claims the criminal-justice system’s inability to see perpetrators as victims constitutes a “failure to address the root causes and cyclical nature of violence” that “perpetuates a racialized narrative of individual culpability and a stark moral binary between those who harm and those who are harmed.” Yes, Professor Godsoe, it does. That’s exactly what justice requires: an assessment of an individual’s acts when they violate the rule of law and harm another person, even as judges and juries are asked to consider any mitigating circumstances. Eliminating the “stark moral binary” eliminates our ability to discern right from wrong and in the process removes the person of central moral importance when it comes to the pursuit of justice: the victim.
In this new paradigm, however, even the terms “victim” and “offender” are suspect. “Much of the terminology associated with the criminal system—including ‘victim’ and ‘offender’—are [sic] laden with normative and stigmatized concepts, and do not accurately capture the full experiences and humanity of either those who are harmed or those who harm,” Godsoe argues. She goes on to use the term “offender” only in quotes and argues that offenders (excuse me, “offenders”) suffer from “perpetration trauma,” or “trauma arising from committing violence.” Citing studies of post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by combat soldiers, she claims that the trauma experienced by violent criminals (as opposed to their victims) is underappreciated, “reflecting the dominant narrative about the moral culpability of those who commit crime, particularly violent crime.”
Her solution is to include violent offenders in decarceration efforts and to “dismantle the victim and ‘offender’ categories themselves.” Ultimately, she argues, we must “recognize the victimhood of those who harm, and conversely the harm committed by victims.”
Other contributors to the 2022 symposium offered equally dismissive approaches to victims. Two contributors criticized the rights of victims to offer victim-impact statements at trials, while another, Steven Zeidman, doubled down on the Skinner-box approach to personal responsibility with this observation: “Individual traits are not the driver of criminal behavior. Yet, the inability of those involved in the system to share evidence of their social background, and the refusal of actors in the system to view these factors as significantly mitigating, if not excusing, means that the problem is only swept under the rug.”
And so, despite the lessons learned from overly liberal crime policies in the previous century, many of them are ascendant again. We’ve seen the return of the decarceration and prison-abolition movement, the success of defund-the-police activism, and the end of cash bail, as well as claims that criminals simply can’t help themselves or their behavior because they live at the whim of oppressive “systemic” forces that control their behavior.
These policies have a body count.
The end of cash bail for violent offenders has returned to the streets people who have killed or assaulted again, even as their victims’ stories go untold or are ignored by activists. Excessive use of diversionary- and restorative-justice programs failed to have the desired effect of combatting crime; indeed, in many cities, prosecutors have simply given up prosecuting some crimes.
In Washington, D.C., awash in gun violence despite strict gun-control laws, more than 60 percent of arrests for carrying an unlicensed firearm are “no-papered” by the local attorney general—meaning prosecutors declined to prosecute the case. When asked by a local reporter about the steep rise in violent crime committed by juveniles—including the murder by a group of teenagers of a Lyft driver who had escaped war-torn Afghanistan to build a new life in the U.S. and the murder of a construction worker by a 14-year-old—D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb sounded like an unctuous therapist rather than a representative of law enforcement. He told a local news station that violent kids just need more “compassion” and “support” from the community. He said nothing about the victims or their grieving families No wonder homicide rates are climbing in D.C. even as they decline slightly in many other cities. By the beginning of August 2023, D.C. had more than 150 homicides for the year, which puts it on track for a homicide rate higher than it has been for decades. D.C.’s U.S. Attorney Matthew M. Graves has also demonstrated an unwillingness to prosecute crime: He declined to press charges for 67 percent of the arrests his office received.
Social-justice concerns now predominate in discussions of crime. In a book titled In Defense of Looting, widely praised by left-leaning media outlets, including National Public Radio, Vicky Osterweil claims that destruction and looting represent “a new energy of resistance” that should be celebrated as questioning a “law and order” society that tolerates social and economic inequality. Ostwerweil has no time to consider the impact on the lives of the people whose livelihoods were destroyed and lives threatened by these liberating looters.
In noncriminal settings, such as K–12 schools, the logic of victimhood culture has encouraged the embrace of questionable restorative-justice programs to combat bullying and assaults. Rather than remove a dangerous student from school to protect most children, faculty make the victims of harassment and bullying discuss their feelings with the person who attacked them. Like so much of progressive criminal-justice theory, restorative justice is oriented toward the perpetrator, who is meant to be made to understand the harm he or she caused by having to confront his or her victim, as opposed to being made to accept the blame and punishment that ordinary justice demands. Reconciliation talks, group hugs, therapy circles—these ultimately put the perpetrator’s needs front and center while encouraging the victim to believe that he or she has an obligation not only to listen to the attacker but to forgive. What if a victim doesn’t want to confront his abuser and discuss his feelings, or listen to his attacker’s feelings?
For adult victims of crime, the existing infrastructure for victims does not always meet their needs. A report from the Alliance for Safety and Justice found that although millions of Americans reported having been the victims of crime, “only 243,000 people had victims’ compensation applications approved” in 2018. Many crime victims aren’t aware such resources exist; or they are told that to receive them they must first exhaust all other avenues of financial support; or they must cooperate fully with law enforcement, which in some cases, such as domestic violence, might put them at great risk.
Even existing victims’ funds can’t provide compensation for the full costs of physical and psychological recovery, which include hours lost to anxiety and trauma in addition to healing from injuries. John Jay College of Criminal Justice estimates that between 2010 and 2020, the cost to hospitals of treating gunshot victims was $469 million, and nearly 70 percent of that cost was borne by taxpayers, both at the state and federal level (via Medicare and Medicaid payments).
As for the “root causes” invoked to explain away responsibility for the perpetrators of crime, the discussion of crime is conveniently turned into a hazy question of social justice, which is far more amenable territory for the (usually white) progressive activist class whose privilege protects them from the experience of crime. It has become impossible for a section of American elite opinion to even acknowledge that there is a place for punishment in a society where elites insist on tolerance (while insulating themselves from the effects of their tolerance by installing actual or virtual gates that prevent the bad guys from coming too close).
They are aided and abetted by the many progressive prosecutors happy to throw good money after bad platitudes when it comes to the perpetrators of crime. Jamila Hodge, a former federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., claimed in The Appeal, “In all my time, I never met a person who had caused harm who hadn’t been a victim first, often facing trauma and harm beginning in childhood.” Her solution? To “shift away from punishment, rooted in slavery and racism, toward solutions that address the needs of communities ravaged by violence. What we build must deliver healing, safety, and accountability that repairs for all parties involved in harm—including the person who caused it.”
This is wrongheaded and dangerous. It is wrongheaded because it grants equal moral status to victims and perpetrators; and it is dangerous because, however nice such wishful thinking and “healing” rhetoric sound, its methods are ineffective at protecting innocent people from violent criminals. As D.C.’s crime rate demonstrates, Hodge and her ilk would have done better to spend more time reading history and criminal procedure and less time delivering their special brand of “healing.”
It is good and just to set boundaries for who is and who is not a real victim. Invoking broad claims of victimhood should never be used as an excuse for criminal behavior or as a tool of moral equivocation. It is true that many offenders are also victims. But distinguishing between good and criminal behavior, even within the lifespan of a single person, is possible and necessary.
In the communities often hardest hit by crime, minority neighborhoods, people are getting fed up—and some organizations are finally responding to them. Recently, the NAACP in Oakland issued an open letter calling on politicians to do more to prevent crime, including announcing a state of emergency: “Oakland residents are sick and tired of our intolerable public safety crisis that overwhelmingly impacts minority communities. Murders, shootings, violent armed robberies, home invasions, car break-ins, sideshows, and highway shootouts have become a pervasive fixture of life in Oakland.”
Violent crime is so common in Oakland that utility workers now require private security personnel to accompany them when they do their jobs. The reasons, according to the NAACP? “Failed leadership, including the movement to defund the police, our District Attorney’s unwillingness to charge and prosecute people who murder and commit life threatening serious crimes, and the proliferation of anti-police rhetoric have created a heyday for Oakland criminals. If there are no consequences for committing crime in Oakland, crime will continue to soar.”
And yet, the public officials charged with ensuring public safety place the consequences elsewhere. Mayor Johnson of Chicago recently responded to the precipitous rise in carjackings and car theft in the city (many committed by armed assailants) not by announcing policies to crack down on the criminals committing such acts—but by announcing that he would be suing the manufacturers of car such as Hyundai and Kia for making them too easy to steal! Many of the “reforms” touted by progressive activists and elected officials (making more crimes misdemeanors, eliminating cash bail, refusing to prosecute many crimes) benefit perpetrators while leaving victims and law-abiding citizens everywhere feeling as if their concerns and their rights no longer matter.
If we don’t reject a culture of victimhood so expansive that it encompasses violent criminals, the consequences will be far more dire than rising crime rates. We will have failed, as a society, to protect one another and to ensure swift and sure justice for our fellow citizens. Crime rates rise and fall, but a society whose citizens stop believing that justice is fair and right and possible can move in only one direction: downward.
1 The U.S. Supreme Court declared New York’s law unconstitutional in 1991, calling it “overinclusive” and violative of the First Amendment.
2 Fried has been in the news in the past year because she is the mother of Sam Bankman-Fried, currently under indictment for massive financial fraud.
Photo: AP Photo/Erin Hooley
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