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Crime victims, former offenders contribute a unique perspective.

Today's corrections volunteers come from all backgrounds and from all parts of the community. In many cases, they are from local church groups, the business community or local colleges. However, a growing number of volunteers are individuals who have personally felt the effects of crime in their lives--crime victims and former offenders.

Crime Victims

Crime victims serving as volunteers can offer a unique perspective to the people they serve. They can help both inmates and staff understand the traumatic effects crimes have on victims, their families and society in general. In addition, volunteer service offers victims a chance to have input into the criminal justice system and therefore to affect the lives of other victims. One woman, a rape victim who participates in the Victim Awareness Class at the Pine Lodge Pre-release Center in Spokane, Wash., says she hopes to help inmates understand the effects of their crimes on victims.

"I want them to know that rape is not just a sexual act--it's a crime of violence that you never fully recover from," she says. "I want them not to victimize someone else. If I can prevent one other person from becoming a victim like me, I think it's worth the effort."

Georgia Hilgeman, executive director of the Vanished Children's Alliance in San Jose, Calif., often makes presentations on missing and exploited children to inmates in California Department of Corrections facilities. A long-time advocate for missing children, Hilgeman teaches inmates about the trauma experienced by these children, their families and their communities.

Hilgeman says the first time she stepped into a prison, she felt a real "us and them" mentality, not only among inmates but also among volunteers. Hilgeman stressed to her colleagues that "to better serve victims, we cannot isolate ourselves from what motivates offenders," and the barriers gradually eroded.

Former Offenders

Former offenders also can serve a valuable role as corrections volunteers. They can help inmates and at-risk youths learn that crime doesn't pay.

Jim Harris served 16 years in a California state prison for a capital crime. While in prison, he became a member of the facility's Victim Offender Reconciliation Group (VORG), where he met with crime victims and victim services providers to learn about the impact of crime on victims and the community.

When Harris was released from prison, he was frightened and unsure of his future. One day soon after his release, he was leaving a grocery store when he noticed that a woman who had left ahead of him began to walk faster and seemed frightened about having a man walk behind her. Disturbed by this incident, Harris called the Bay Area Women Against Rape (BAWAR) in Oakland, Calif., a group he had learned about while in the VORG program.

Harris decided to get involved in BAWAR. Today, he speaks to offenders in California and to male teens about how sexist behavior such as making cat-calls is demeaning to women and contributes to the overall violence against women in this country.

In addition, Harris encourages inmates, letting them know what life is like outside prison. He tells them about the social services and individuals on the outside who are willing to help them get back on their feet.

Encouraging Participation

Corrections officials can encourage crime victims and former offenders to participate in the system as volunteers in a variety of ways.

For example, in some parole and corrections agencies, victims help keep other crime victims informed about their offender's status and accompany them to release hearings. In some states, victims are brought in to conduct staff training, helping corrections personnel understand the long-term impact of crime on victims.

Victims who are given the opportunity to work with corrections agencies can help bring corrections' perspective to the victims rights movement. Many victims have helped support legislation sponsored by corrections agencies and have testified before key committees.

Building networks with the more than 8,000 victim advocacy organizations in existence today provides corrections with a valuable resource for volunteers. In addition, it helps generate mutual understanding for the respective goals of victims and corrections.

Crime victims and former offenders are an integral part of the criminal justice system and are an important resource for corrections.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Costa, Jeralita; Seymour, Anne
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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