Albania Morales stood behind the coffin-shaped placard that bore her dead husband’s face, practically eclipsed by her political prop. Ricardo Avelar-Lara died last November in Los Angeles, shot by sheriff’s deputies.
I am a crime victim, Morales said: I saw the officers kill him.
Morales was taking part this week in a rally with a twist: She and other self-described crime victims were not backed by the usual law enforcement groups. And the last thing they wanted was for California to get tougher on crime.
Morales was joined by former inmates, families of people in prison, those who had lost loved ones to murder. The participation of traditional crime-victim groups that for 26 years occupied the Capitol lawn for this annual event had been called off.
Organizers of this week’s activities say theirs is a truer reflection of what a victim is, their goals a more accurate representation of what crime victims want and need. Last fall, the group masterminded Proposition 47, the law that removed most felony penalties for drug use and minor theft.
They are now lobbying against efforts to roll back portions of the law and in support of redirecting corrections spending toward trauma services for victims and alternatives to incarceration for criminals.
Criminal justice experts say that agenda is part of a national shift in the public safety debate, one that focuses more on conflicts between communities of color and the criminal justice system, including abuses of force by police and lengthy prison sentences.
“That static idea of a victim of crime as somebody attacked by a stranger, and as somebody who is white … is becoming an obsolete thought,” said Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime in Washington, D.C.
“The reality is a lot of crime in the United States happens in communities of color,” she said. “A person can be a victim at one point, and they turn around and perpetrate a crime.”
Representatives of traditional crime-victim groups are appalled by the blurring of lines between victim and criminal.
“To use the term ‘victim’ so freely is kind of offensive to me,” said San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Michael Ramos, who is planning to run for state attorney general.
Ramos drew a distinction between the family members of murder victims he had consoled on the morning before the rally and some of those recruited to the event. He accused the organizers of co-opting the definition of crime victim for political purposes.
The rally was held by Californians for Safety and Justice, a group spawned by foundations that include the Ford Foundation and the California Endowment, and by New York hedge fund mogul George Soros. The group began recruiting people to speak out as crime victims shortly after it was formed, to help press for new criminal justice policies.
The effort focused on reducing penalties for drug use and other nonviolent crimes, and the foundations directed $14 million in grants to community groups that then campaigned for or otherwise supported Proposition 47. Law enforcement associations and traditional crime-victim groups opposed the measure.
Beginning in 2013, the organization assembled advocates to provide an alternative to views voiced for more than two decades at the Capitol rallies held by Crime Victims United of California. The annual event was hosted by the state’s prison guard union, and often the governor attended.
Harriet Salerno, the mother of a murder victim and founder of Crime Victims United, canceled this year’s gathering out of concern that it would be marked by confrontation. At the past two rallies, she said, those showing support for police were harassed.
“I don’t need to be abused,” Salerno said.
She also bridled at criticism from leaders of Californians for Safety and Justice that the previous rallies gave little voice to minority victims with complicated stories of crime and violence.
The speakers for Californians for Safety and Justice this week included Dionne Wilson, the wife of a slain police officer who now regrets advocating for the death penalty against her husband’s killer and became the lead voice for crime victims supporting Proposition 47.
Other speakers were a woman pushed into prostitution as a child and a rape victim who said most prison inmates are themselves victims of crimes.
In a series of Sacramento workshops over the last year, they have urged people to lobby for changes in the justice system, including reduced spending on prisons. The motto of this week’s rally was “Remember. Recover. Reform.”
Many attendees at this week’s events were community activists, with causes such as requiring police to wear body cameras and nurturing the families of those behind bars. Members of the Essie Justice Group, an Oakland-based organization for women with loved ones in prison, went door to door at the Capitol. Identifying themselves as crime victims, they lobbied lawmakers to support legislation written by Californians for Safety and Justice and kill any bill that would limit Proposition 47.
“What we want is for our community to be safe. We don’t want billions spent on prisons and prison people who are coming back into the community, because that doesn’t make it safe,” said Anita Wills, a San Leandro woman with a son behind bars and a grandson who was murdered.
Claiming the support of “over 5,000 crime victims” statewide, Californians for Safety and Justice is lobbying the Legislature on nearly two dozen bills.
One measure backed by the group would triple the time prison inmates can earn off their sentences by participating in drug-treatment and job-training programs. Another would steer community grants promised under Proposition 47 to programs for former inmates, including housing and clothing allowances.
A third would make long-term inmates older than 50 eligible for elderly parole.
The organization opposes legislation that would offset or reverse parts of Proposition 47 — for example, by requiring DNA testing of people charged with drug use and other crimes no longer considered a felony.
UC Berkeley criminal justice expert Barry Krisberg said the proposals that would modify Proposition 47 would affect few people and would not substantially erode the law. But he said the alternative justice lobby is unlikely to affect lawmakers’ votes on criminal penalties.
“The politicians are still pretty frightened about crossing the law enforcement unions,” Krisberg said.
The Los Angeles Times receives funding from the Ford Foundation to increase news coverage of criminal justice, immigration and the Southwest border. The Ford grant helped fund reporting for this article. Under the terms of the grant, The Times has sole control over the coverage.