What Do Victims Want? New California Justice Reforms Expose Divide Among Crime Survivors

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Terry Lopez (left) and Tony Lopez (right), with their three remaining children, wear T-shirts in remembrance of their son 'Lil Tony,' who was shot and killed in early 2020. (Courtesy of the Lopez family)

On Jan. 13, 2020, Tony and Terry Lopez’s world came crashing down around them: Their 20-year-old son, whom they called Lil Tony, had been shot in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.

He died the next day. A year later, his family said the loss remains unbearable. The motive for the killing remains unclear.

“He was such a beautiful soul. He had a great personality. Everybody was drawn to him,” said Terry Lopez. “He liked to make people laugh. He was goofy. You know, we're a goofy family.”

Ten months later, two brothers were arrested by Los Angeles officials. Jackie Lacey, Los Angeles County's tough-on-crime district attorney at the time, charged one of the brothers, the 16-year-old alleged shooter, in adult court.

The Lopezes believed he could face decades in prison.

But then, at the end of the year, a new district attorney, George Gascón, was sworn in. He'd campaigned on a reform agenda, promising to decrease incarceration, and once in office immediately moved to limit the harsh sentencing practices of his predecessor.

“When he got sworn in, they automatically put a halt to any juveniles being transferred to adult court,” said Tony Lopez.

That change — keeping the alleged shooter in juvenile court — means that even if the teen is convicted, he’ll face a much shorter sentence. Under state law, people charged with crimes in juvenile court can only serve until their 25th birthday, and can also qualify before that for early release. The idea is that young people’s brains are still developing and they should be given a chance at reform rather than locked up for life.

Tony Lopez said the family was devastated.

“Imagine committing murder, even if you get the max time, which is to the age 25, which is nine years, but to be let out from three to five years is like totally a slap in our face,” he said, noting that he understands the concept of rehabilitation, but not when someone’s life is lost.

“Where is the justice for Lil Tony, you know, where's the justice for the next Lil Tony?” he said.

The Lopez family feels burned by Gascón's new policies, but the truth is, this debate spans far beyond Los Angeles. California has been moving to restrict long prison sentences for the past decade, and recent law changes have taken particular aim at limiting juvenile punishment.


The changes have sparked debates about what victims want and need — and who should represent them. Do they want the government to focus on punishment? Or should the focus be crime prevention, rehabilitation and support services for survivors of crime?

Those who have traditionally advocated for crime victims in California believe Gascón and others are forgetting about the central role of the justice system.

“I think when somebody's been a victim of a crime, they do want to see justice done,” said Nina Salarno Besselman, a prosecutor and executive director of the three-decades old Crime Victims United, and also a survivor of violent crime — her sister was murdered in 1979.

Salarno Besselman’s group has historically been aligned with law enforcement, and helped push many of the state’s tough-on-crime laws, including the harsher sentences for juvenile offenders that are now being rethought by prosecutors like Gascón and a host of state lawmakers and voters.

“There's an accountability and a justice component that seems to be getting forgotten these days,” she said.

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For a long time, Salarno Besselman and her group were among the loudest voices advocating for survivors of crime. But in recent years, other groups have emerged with a different approach focused less on prison sentences and more on crime prevention, rehabilitation and support services for crime survivors.

Tinisch Hollins is executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, a pro-reform advocacy group that has built out a national network of more than 10,000 crime survivors.

Hollins is herself a survivor: Two of her brothers were killed by gun violence over the past decade in the largely Black San Francisco neighborhood they grew up in.

“I come from a community where the majority of us are not recognized as crime victims at all, or survivors at all,” she said.

Hollins, who is a strong supporter of the kind of criminal justice reforms that leaders like Gascón are pushing for, noted that most victims don’t get any chance to demand accountability: No arrests have been made in the majority of violent crimes — including both of her brothers' murders — over the last decade, according to state crime data.

“So I think it's critical for us to have a voice in this conversation. Black and brown communities and disadvantaged communities experience the bulk of trauma and crime and violence. And they're the least resourced. We're the least resourced, the least responded to,” she said.

Hollins said local governments have historically responded to crime and violence in those communities with more policing, which leads to more people being caught up in the criminal justice system. A recent survey her group commissioned in Los Angeles County of more than 700 survivors of violent crime showed that most support changes to the justice system, with greater focus on rehabilitating offenders and preventing future crime, and less on simply punishing people.

And what survivors really want, Hollins said, is help.

The poll found that most survivors don’t get the support they need after experiencing a violent crime, whether that be help navigating the justice system, financial assistance to help with medical costs, property damage or lost income, or broader help like mental health counseling.

“I go back to my moment of losing my brothers. And, you know what we needed most for that moment? What we needed were people that were compassionate. We needed people that could give us the insight and understanding of how the system works or doesn't work,” she said.

Hollins believes the poll findings show that the victims' rights conversation has been co-opted by law enforcement and more privileged Californians who don’t suffer from either the bulk of victimization or the consequences of having community members locked up in prison.

“A lot of the traditional victims' advocates have outright said that people of color, people from our communities and those who have intersections with the criminal justice system, whether they have friends or family members who have had contact, that they don't deserve to identify themselves as crime survivors or crime victims,” Hollins said.

But in Los Angeles, critics of Gascón say that the sudden shift in policies there are leaving all mourning families in the dark.

Retired L.A. prosecutor Kathy Cady is one of a dozen or so former deputy DAs who have been volunteering to represent families — including the Lopez’s — in court when Gascón's office moves to reduce criminal charges.

She said those on the other side of this debate are right to advocate for more victims’ services, but that shouldn’t be a substitute for appropriate consequences.

“Part of what victims want is they want to make sure that people are held accountable. And being held accountable doesn't mean that you all of a sudden just get, you know, charges or allegations dropped,” Cady said.

Gascón said he understands the Lopezes and other crime survivors are hurting, and that he does believe in holding offenders accountable.

“There is no question that when we lose a child or a husband or wife or brother or sister, those are devastating events,” he said.

But Gascón said that past efforts to enact harsh sentences haven’t left communities safer; they’ve only created more victims, left families without parents and packed state prisons.

Gascón said he wants to enlist the help of a wide range of survivors' voices to shape local policy, and has put together a victims' advisory board to help.

“We have become very accustomed to equating the harm reduction or mitigation of pain, if you will, with inflicting pain and punishment on the other side," he said. "And unfortunately, that's gotten us to where we are today."