California’s early release program denies crime victims a chance to speak

Jordan Cunningham
Jordan Cunningham

Like much of the country, I watched the emotional testimony unfold from the victims of disgraced U.S. Olympic Gymnastics sports doctor Larry Nassar. It is a powerful reminder of how we can give victims a chance to heal by speaking in court, face-to-face with the person who harmed them. The process of healing begins with victim impact statements.

In my time as an attorney in the criminal justice system, I have seen firsthand the importance of victim impact statements. I have sat next to people whose loved ones were taken before their time and seen them sob and shake with emotion. There is a sense of helplessness when all a person can do is offer a comforting hand on the shoulder of a crying person. I have also seen incredible courage from victims who faced a person who abused and tormented them for years, and told that person they no longer had power or control over them.

The powerful victim impact statements from gymnasts like former Team USA Captain Aly Raisman and nearly 160 other women gave them a chance to directly confront Nassar. It also gave them a platform to demand social change and protect women gymnasts going forward.

Counselors and therapists following the case say these statements are important to help victims regain their mental strength. The athletes were able to tell their stories and know that the world believed them. They were able to come together and show they are not alone. It was a chance to understand that the abuse was not their fault and they can live their lives knowing that Nassar would spend the rest of his days behind bars.

In California, victim impact statements are enshrined in our state’s Constitution, thanks to voters approving Marsy’s Law in 2008.

Unfortunately, California is going in the opposite direction under the proposed regulations for the governor’s early release program.

Under the recently passed Proposition 57, the California Department of Corrections can release certain inmates well before their sentences expire — including those who have committed serious offenses — based on a complex formula to determine if they are a threat to the public or not. The problem is, victims can only submit a written statement during this process. Victims or their family members have no opportunity to speak at the hearing about how their lives have been forever changed by the inmate’s actions.

The inmate can be released by prison officials without ever hearing emotional testimony from the victim. This undermines trust in the system and runs afoul of Marsy’s Law. It is only possible to truly understand the scope of a crime’s impact on a victim when it is shared in person. Not only can victims tell their stories, but it’s also an opportunity for perpetrators to apologize for their actions. That can be a powerful thing for both sides.

A decision to release a person from prison for a horrible crime must consider the victim’s perspective, which is only truly conveyed in person.

Media coverage of the Nassar trial has shown the country the power of victims finding their inner strength by directly confronting their abuser. We should allow victims the chance to personally address prison officials and the perpetrators before giving early release under Prop 57.

San Luis Obispo County resident Jordan Cunningham represents the 35th District in the state Assembly.

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