Crime Victims United of California: A powerful voice in state politics

Soon after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its recent decision that California would have to reduce its prison population to relieve overcrowding, a representative of Crime Victims United of California took to the airwaves with harrowing predictions. "It's a disaster," Nina Salarno Ashford, a board member of the group, told an interviewer. "They're going to be letting sex offenders out. They're going to be letting kidnappers out. They're going to be letting a whole host of really bad people back into California without the resources to protect the good citizens of California."

It was not surprising that Crime Victims United was given airtime in the wake of the opinion. For more than two decades, journalists and politicians have treated the group as the primary voice of California's crime victims. Representatives such as Salarno Ashford routinely speak as if they are representative of all victims. But Crime Victims United has a particular, and particularly punitive, perspective on criminal justice, one that has been shaped over the years by its most powerful ally: the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., the union that represents the state's prison guards.

The alliance between the victims group and the guards dates to 1990, when former union President Don Novey met Harriet Salarno (Nina Salarno Ashford's mother) at a parole hearing for the man who murdered Salarno's other daughter, Catina, in 1979. At the time, Salarno led support groups for victims and their families and lobbied state legislators (with little success) to pass victim-friendly legislation.

Soon after the parole hearing, Novey's union decided to bankroll the formation of Crime Victims United of California, with Salarno at the helm. The union provided the group, which consists of both a legislative advocacy arm and political action committees that endorse and provide financial backing to candidates, with seed money, office space, lobbying staff and attorneys. And Novey personally taught its leaders how to play political hardball. As Salarno once put it, Novey "steered us in the right direction, opened the door and taught us what to do. He educated us."

The union had a strong personal interest in developing the victims group, which it realized could be an effective ally in achieving the guards' policy objectives: enhancing members' pay and benefits, keeping private prisons out of California and promoting "tough on crime" sentencing laws. Crime Victims United shares the union's commitment to lengthy, harsh mandatory sentencing laws such as "three strikes." The alliance has been good for both partners.

For example, in 2005 the guards and Salarno's group strongly opposed then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's efforts to reform the parole system. The union financed a frightening television ad featuring Salarno and Salarno Ashford accusing the governor of compromising public safety and defying crime victims. The spot concluded with the elder Salarno scolding, "You promised to stand with victims, governor. You let us down."

As Schwarzenegger quickly learned, the union and the victims group it has mentored were a formidable political force. The union has the financial resources, political acumen and connections, and the victims' group has a nearly untouchable moral authority. Together, they're hard to beat.

But their success has had a downside. When Crime Victims United turns complicated criminal justice matters into simple choices between helping and hurting victims, reasoned debate and thoughtful policymaking are necessarily constricted. Lawmakers are reluctant to oppose advocates like Salarno for fear that they will be tarred in the media and targeted in future elections. No politician wants to stand against a woman whose daughter was murdered and be deemed soft on crime. With financing from the guards, the victims group has the resources to seriously help or damage a politician's image and career.

Like other victims' groups, Crime Victims United provides support to people who suffer crime and helps them navigate confusing and often frustrating legal proceedings. What distinguishes the group from others that serve victims, though, is the extent and effectiveness of its political operation. Through its lobbying arm and political action committees, largely funded by the union, the group efficaciously pushes for laws to lengthen prison sentences, stiffen parole conditions and make penal facilities ever more austere.

By claiming pride of place as "the voice of victims," though, the group marginalizes alternative victims' voices. Some victims' rights groups in the state maintain that vengeful, ultra-tough penal policies do not help victims of crime but simply create more suffering and resentment. These groups say that challenging offenders to take responsibility for the harm their crimes cause through restorative justice practices and helping prisoners develop the tools necessary to live crime-free lives help prevent future victims. These alternative voices reject zero-sum logic; they do not reflexively pit offenders against victims — or, in Nina Salarno Ashford's words, the "bad people" against the "good citizens."

As lawmakers debate how to reduce prison overcrowding, Crime Victims United will surely keep making its voice heard in the Capitol and in the media. Its leaders will probably argue that the state should build more prisons and absolutely avoid shortening prison terms. If policymakers continue to follow the voices of expressly punitive victims rights advocates and ignore the opinions of those who promote alternative, less punitive conceptions of justice, California will not shrink its $9-billion prison system or alleviate its correctional crisis. The status quo will prevail. Let's hope this harrowing prediction doesn't come true.

Joshua Page is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. He's the author of "The Toughest Beat: Punishment, Politics, and the Prison Officers Union in California."

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