Robert Gallagher for Al Jazeera America

Can a new victims advocacy movement break cycles of violence?

A growing number of organizations are calling for shorter sentences for offenders and better counseling for victims

LOS ANGELES — David Guizar was 10 years old when police found the oldest of his four siblings, Oscar Martinez, 17, dead on a sidewalk in South Central Los Angeles, shot in a presumed gang attack. The baby of the family, Guizar grew up without a father and idolized his oldest brother. “I didn’t understand what happened,” he says. “I saw my mom going through shock, crying and screaming and disowning her belief in God and all these different things. And I’m just sitting there, basically taking all that in.” In the years after that, Guizar turned to rebellion, gang-banging, violence and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol to cope. Counseling for mother and son might have made a difference, but their desperate need went unmet by a system geared to assist victims once cases are prosecuted — not much help if a murder goes unsolved, as it did with Martinez.

That all began more than 32 years ago. Then and now, murders of young men of color, especially when gangs are involved, are up to twice as likely to go unsolved as those of homicide victims as a whole. This lack of resolution often leaves victims’ families even more alone. “No one really took the time to walk me through the process,” Guizar says, “to explain to me that something had happened that was going to be hard for me to live with for the rest of my life but that things could work out.”

David Guizar and his mother, Maria Guzman, who holds a picture of her slain son Oscar Martinez.
Robert Gallagher for Al Jazeera America

Decades later, lounging in his modest split-level home tucked into a hillside in the El Sereno neighborhood of east LA, Guizar describes his brushes with the law as an inevitable byproduct of what he endured. “There were some violent nights,” he says. Prosecutors dismissed an assault charge against him for lack of evidence, and he managed to avoid other serious legal trouble.

After a series of wrenching turns well into adulthood, he found his footing by providing other victims of violence the kind of help he was denied. He’s doing that as part of a movement that’s pioneering a different form of victim advocacy.

While traditional victims’ advocates have aligned themselves with law enforcement, maintaining that justice should come in the form of harsh punishment of offenders, this new movement has more in common with criminal justice reformers seeking alternatives to tough sentencing policies. Grounded in research that establishes clear links between early exposure to violence and self-destructive patterns, the new victims’ advocates want to spend less on prisons and more on crime prevention, trauma care and other forms of counseling. That shift, they say, can save today’s victim from becoming tomorrow’s criminal and prisoner — and can rescue communities of color from the twin ravages of high crime and rates of imprisonment.

At the movement’s core is the belief that criminals and their most frequent victims belong to the same community, one that has long been told what brand of criminal justice is good for it. Now members of this community are announcing that they want a say in those policies. 

Justice left behind

The modern victim advocacy movement started four decades ago as a demand for a voice in a criminal justice system perceived as too lenient toward criminals and too callous toward victims. Emboldened by a 1982 report commissioned by the Reagan administration, advocates in the 1980s and ’90s won constitutional amendments in more than 30 states that established bills of rights for victims, including the right to speak out at sentencing, in plea bargain negotiations and at parole hearings. The 1984 federal Victims of Crime Act and state laws enacted nationwide around that time established a system to provide victims with mental health counseling and compensate them for financial losses — all paid by local victim-aid agencies with money from fines and fees levied on offenders.

Important as those advances were, they still failed to help a majority of victims. An annual survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics consistently finds that barely one-tenth of violent crime victims receive the services designed to support them, in large part because fewer than half the victims of violence and property crime bother to report these offenses to police. In effect, tying victim services to crime prosecution has ended up excluding most of the people these services were meant to help.

As victims’ rights were gaining momentum, a parallel movement was taking place in the criminal justice system in response to high crime rates.

In his 2007 book, “Governing Through Crime,” University of California at Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon described his state as the cradle of the victim-focused severity revolution in criminal law, which rejected prisoner rehabilitation and judicial discretion in favor of lengthened mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws. Even after the crime wave began to recede in the 1990s, a number of legislative innovations were named for victims — usually white — whose experiences exposed perceived gaps in the justice system, among them, Megan’s Law establishing sex-offender registries, Amelia’s Law toughening parole systems and, most recently, the proposed Kate’s Law to strengthen deportation policy. 

Young black men are much more likely to be victims of violence than other groups. They end up imprisoned far more compared with the general population. And research into the interactions between trauma and crime suggest that’s not a coincidence.

In contrast to the image put forth by the victims memorialized in those laws and bills, a more complete picture of crime victims in the U.S. looks less white and more socioeconomically marginalized. Young black men are much more likely to be victims of violence than other groups. They end up imprisoned far more compared with the general population. And research into the interactions between trauma and crime suggest that’s not a coincidence. A Justice Department–funded study concluded that the “toxic combination” of exposure to domestic abuse and street violence makes children up to 10 times as likely as other children to suffer from post-traumatic disorders into adulthood — including turning to drugs and crime “to counteract feelings of despair and powerlessness.” In a recent study of how poverty and exposure to violence play into the making of future criminals, researcher Bruce Western found that among a cohort of former prisoners in the Boston area, nearly half witnessed a homicide as children and about half were victims of violence at the hands of their parents.

This vicious feedback loop of victimization, untreated trauma, crime and punishment, along with racial disparities in incarceration rates, sparked the new victims’ movement — one made up of advocates who see, as Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies put it recently, that “the men and women living in the communities ostensibly served by saturation enforcement strategies are often the people who object to them most vehemently.” Criminal justice policy, he continued, “has been designed and imposed by those least affected by crime, by distant politicians and pundits who do not so much experience disorder as imagine it.” 

Second time around

As his turbulent teenage years wound down, Guizar became a father at 19. He named his firstborn after his dead brother Oscar and decided it was time to fly straight. Accepted into a job-training program, he found himself at elite conferences, meeting with bright college students and professionals. He grew interested in community organizing efforts in Watts and soon gravitated toward a rising star in South LA activism, Aqeela Sherrills.

Aqeela Sherrills in 2012.
Ashley Myers-Turner

Just four years older than Guizar, Sherrills made his mark brokering a historic peace treaty between the Crips and Bloods on the eve of the 1992 LA riots. From there, he took a lead role in Amer-I-Can, the national gang-mediation project led by football great Jim Brown, and then struck out on his own, wrangling grants for violence intervention and youth services. One local leader who watched Sherrills’ trajectory and counseled him on tactics, Rep. Maxine Waters, says he was a natural at this work. “Not only did he become a leader and a human being who really understood what the needs were,” she says, but he also was skilled at “how to reach in and connect with young black men.” Guizar stuck by him at every step.

By 2012, Sherrills found a home for his work in one of the groups on the rise in the new wave of victim advocacy, Californians for Safety and Justice (CSJ). The group was mounting a statewide campaign for what might sound like an unlikely pairing: sentencing reform, to reduce California’s reliance on jail and prison, in tandem with expanded victim services.

At that point, Guizar was regrouping after having been sidelined by alcoholism and drug addiction in his early 30s. When Sherrills invited him to join CSJ’s crime victims’ affiliate, it was because of Martinez’s murder decades earlier and the lessons Guizar learned in its aftermath about the failings of the victim service and justice systems. Sherrills shared an intimate knowledge of these issues from his early exposure to sexual abuse and violence, which caused him to turn to gangs and eventually crime prevention work. He lost a son to gun violence and three brothers to prison. Both men felt drawn to a group that finally understood, in Guizar’s words, that “it’s not uncommon for one household to lose a family member to a murder and then another to prison. It’s a norm.”

Gilbert Guzman
Courtesy David Guizar

The first meeting of the CSJ victims’ group was scheduled for late 2012. Weeks before it was going to be held, Guizar was awakened by a late-night phone call. His 41-year-old brother, Gilbert Guzman, a hardworking father of four, was shot to death at a wedding reception. Twenty-nine years after one brother’s murder, Guizar faced a second turn of the wheel.

He considered his options. “I could drink and really get amped up,” he says. “I could actually do a little bit of plotting. You know, ‘Who did this? Let’s go out and just do some crazy stuff.’” But he didn’t want to return to that life. At that point, he recalls, “I had six years of sobriety, and I’d really been working on rebuilding my life.” Repeating what he and his family went through the first time — meeting violence with more violence, turning to drugs and alcohol or sinking into depression — would ignore what he had learned and would betray the promise he made to put those lessons to work for other victims. His first priority, he decided, would be to help his mother and other family members cope with the loss and seek justice, whatever that might mean to them. He also wanted to think about the death in terms of the work he was about to do with CSJ and the larger mission of searching for more effective ways to address violence and help victims. “I started to live out what this whole thing was going to be about.”

Finding a new approach

At the time of Guzman’s death, the new victim advocacy movement was just starting to take shape. In 2011, David Rogers and Kerry Naughton of Oregon’s Partnership for Safety and Justice released a paper calling for “a new public safety paradigm” that would reject the zero-sum view that helping victims means hurting offenders and vice versa. In the months that followed, a loose coalition of like-minded organizations began to form. In 2013 and 2014 members released policy papers making a case for a new form of victim advocacy.

At the core of this nascent movement is a vision of a justice system focused more on prevention than overreaction. In place of what these groups see as failed punitive policies that destroy the families and communities most affected by crime, they advocate spending less on prisons and jails and more on early intervention programs — trauma care, drug and mental health treatment and effective education and job training programs to divert youths from the streets. The groups also want to roll back the severe sentences and incarceration rates that grew in the tough-on-crime era, seek prison alternatives for offenders and expand victim benefits so they are awarded regardless of a victim’s usefulness to prosecutors.

Some of the other groups in this informal network, in addition to the Partnership for Safety and Justice, are Equal Justice USA, which assists small victim-aid groups serving communities of color, and the Vera Institute’s Common Justice, which promotes greater recognition of young black men as victims rather than perpetrators. First among equals, in terms of commanding resources and attention, is CSJ.

David Guizar on 55th and Hooper in Los Angeles, where he grew up.
Robert Gallagher for Al Jazeera America

With an annual operating budget of about $4 million, a 17-person staff, major philanthropic backers and a well-funded parent organization, the Tides Center, CSJ is able to flex organizing muscles that most grass-roots reform groups cannot. The group’s most notable success to date was its leading role in winning approval for a 2014 California voter initiative, Proposition 47, a far-reaching set of state criminal justice reforms aimed at easing the severity of sanctions for a number of offenses while funneling savings from lower jail and prison populations into improved victim treatment and prevention measures. CSJ vastly outspent the opposition in the Proposition 47 campaign and enlisted the same sorts of public proponents — crime victims and cops — on whom tough-on-crime advocates usually rely.

Because of its focus on offender rehabilitation, CSJ has been accused of being anti-victim. Nina Salarno Ashford, a leader of the veteran advocacy group Crime Victims United, believes CSJ tricked the public into approving Proposition 47, which she calls a failed experiment at the expense of crime victims. “I think it’s very misleading for a crime victims’ group to say, ‘We’re representing victims, yet we’re weakening our laws and lessening protection for the most vulnerable in our society’ … I really wouldn’t say that they are crime victim advocates.

‘If we can’t see our young people of color, our young men of color, as susceptible to victimization … how are we ever going to stop violent crime?’

Lenore Anderson

director, Californians for Safety and Justice

She claims the fallout from Proposition 47 is already obvious. “There’s no dispute,” she says, “that crime is on the rise.” Though statewide crime data are not yet available for 2015, preliminary numbers show that crime has increased in major California cities, with particularly alarming spikes across all crime categories in Los Angeles. But Stanford University researchers who support Proposition 47 say it’s too soon to say what role the new law might have played with regard to crime rates.

CSJ’s executive director, Lenore Anderson, says the refusal to see CSJ’s work as legitimately pro-victim boils down to what she calls “a cultural distortion” about who the most vulnerable victims are and what kinds of public policies truly serve them. “If we can’t see our young people of color, our young men of color, as susceptible to victimization,” she says, “how are we ever going to stop violent crime?”

Guizar now chairs Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, the victims’ affiliate of CSJ. The parent organization pursues its legislative agenda and sponsors research into the views and experiences of urban crime victims, and Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice plays a supporting and advising role. Its network of city chapters teaches victim advocacy tactics, conducts lobbying efforts and tells crime victims’ stories at events and in the media. It also helps CSJ craft its policy agenda. “These are things I’ve been thinking about for the last 20-plus years,” he says. “And they’re doing it on a scale that I had never really heard of before.”

Because most states don’t have groups as well organized as CSJ, it has quietly been laying plans to go national. According to Anderson, the tentatively named Alliance for Safety and Justice will adopt the CSJ model for multiple state affiliates. If that happens, its work will align with a campaign organized by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project and the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Their Justice Reinvestment Initiative promotes evidence-based reforms of state criminal justice policies and makes a formal effort to collect input from victims’ advocates when deciding how savings from reduced prison costs can be reinvested in victim services. In Hawaii, for example, justice reinvestment funds have been used for hiring and training more victim services staffers and for an automated notification system that alerts victims when offenders are on the verge of release from prison. Spending plans vary according to local needs, and so far, about half the states have signed on to at least some part of the program.

All this has happened as victim services are enjoying a massive increase in federal funding. In 2014 a surge in federal money from corporate fines prompted Congress to nearly quadruple the amount of grants to state and local victim service agencies under the Victims of Crime Act. That increase, which expanded the annual program budget to $2.36 billion, faced a $1.5 billion cut last year. In response, veteran victim services groups and new wave advocacy groups organized a letter-writing and social media campaign, ultimately winning a 15 percent budget increase. Between increasing state aid, thanks to justice reinvestment, and a second year of relatively flush federal funding, victim services now have more money nationally than ever before. 

Recognition and resolution

As Guizar began working with CSJ in the aftermath of Guzman’s murder, the organization’s lofty ideals collided with his tricky family dynamics. What did his surviving relatives want from police and the courts? What did they need to begin healing?

On one point, the family was united: They wanted the police to take Guzman’s death more seriously than they did Martinez’s decades before. Beyond that, there was little unanimity. Some wanted the killer to die in prison. Others wondered what difference the sentence length would make if it couldn’t bring Guzman back. All Guizar knew for sure was that he wouldn’t and couldn’t tell his family members how to react.

He took the lead in dogging the investigation, persistently calling and visiting detectives. One policeman on the case recognized him from his gang-banging days, when he went by the name Snoopy. “I’m not the guy you used to chase around,” Guizar assured the detective. Fearful that the police would neglect the case, Guizar wrote to every public official he could think of to make sure the investigation stayed on track. Friends organized a petition drive to apply the pressure they thought was needed to sustain a diligent investigation. When detectives arrested a suspect, he credited police, who he felt “really wanted to solve this murder.” 

David Guizar at the spot where his brother Gilbert Guzman was shot, with his sons Oscar David Guizar, center, and David Guizar.
Robert Gallagher for Al Jazeera America

When Guzman’s suspected killer, Jose Gallardo, 23, went on trial in the fall of 2014, Guizar attended court every day, texting updates to his family. After a jury found Gallardo guilty, he was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison. That satisfied Guzman’s mother, Maria Guzman, but not everybody else.

When asked what he hoped would come from Gallardo’s prosecution, Guizar treads cautiously, wary of offending members of his family. He wanted Gallardo to be held accountable, found guilty and punished. But, he says, it’s “unfortunate” that prosecutors used Gallardo’s gang affiliation to enhance the charges, even though the killing had no apparent gang connection. Guizar sees Gallardo’s extensive rap sheet as a reflection of the many missed opportunities for intervention. “This dude could’ve been saved at some point,” he says. “My brother could’ve been home.”

Gallardo’s arrest and prosecution opened the door to official victims’ aid for Gilbert Guzman’s family. His children and estranged wife got counseling, and Guizar wrangled a voucher to get his mother visits with a counselor. But when he tried to make an appointment for her, no one would take the voucher. A few places even told him that at 72, she was too old. After bouncing from referral to referral, she lost enthusiasm, and he gave up. Even with his resolve and expertise in victim services, he still failed.

Two shrines now dominate Maria Guzman’s small, neat Los Angeles apartment, one for Oscar Martinez, another for Gilbert Guzman. Asked why she doesn’t take her son’s suggestion to attend a support group for mothers of murder victims, she says she cannot offer words of encouragement to others in her situation, nor can their words comfort her.

“It’s the same every day. No one knows this feeling like me,” she says.

As he listens quietly, Guizar wipes away tears.

In recent weeks, the family has been talking about moving her back to her native Mexico. Guizar’s brother and sister live there and are encouraging the move. He is ambivalent but is determined not to impose his wishes. Leaving LA after more than four decades, with all its memories, would be a big change. But the way he explains it, the outcome seems almost beside the point. He and his siblings simply want their mother to know she matters. “For us,” he says, “I think this conversation is about her being important.”


Mark Obbie is a freelance writer covering law and criminal justice. His work on this story was supported in part by a Soros Justice Media fellowship, whose source of funding, the Open Society Foundations, is a major contributor to Californians for Safety and Justice. No one in Open Society played a role in the selection or reporting of this story.

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