As a child with roots in upstate New York, both of my parents proudly served in the Army. Military values like honor, courage and respect were core tenets of my upbringing, and I always knew I’d grow up to serve my country. At 18, I joined the Marines – and this decision changed my life. Eight months into my service, I was sexually assaulted by a fellow service member.
The system that raised me also protected the individual who assaulted me and blamed me for my victimization.
As a survivor, I want more than anything to know others won’t endure that same pain. But through my experience, I’ve learned our legal system does not deliver safety. Instead, it perpetuates cycles of violence and commits grave injustices in survivors’ names.
My trauma informs my work at the Restorative Action Alliance, which builds safer communities in Buffalo and beyond through preventing sexual harm and promoting accountability. We facilitate restorative justice circles for survivors, those who have caused harm and people who love them. As a survivor, I believe all people have the potential for redemption – if they’ll work for it.
It’s a disservice to survivors to respond to trauma with mass incarceration, which only creates more trauma. While I can never speak for all survivors, I know what I needed to begin healing and feeling safer, and it wasn’t a system that cages Black and brown people as an economic engine for rural communities. This system neglects survivors by diverting funds from housing, mental health and other resources – and often locks up survivors who, themselves, are criminalized.
Any conversation offering a choice between public safety and ending racism erases survivors of color, many of whom are also harmed by mass incarceration either directly or through a loved one. Moreover, it ignores the reality that untreated trauma drives violence. Leaving marginalized survivors out in the cold only makes our communities less safe for everyone. Yet right now, only 4% of survivors get any victim compensation funds.
Three bills before New York’s Legislature center on survivors and redemption. The Fair Access to Victim Compensation bill removes barriers to compensation most often faced by survivors of color, immigrants and others who don’t feel safe reporting to police by expanding the forms of evidence used to show they suffered harm. The Fair & Timely Parole and Elder Parole bills would restore the Parole Board to its original purpose, ensuring people are afforded meaningful opportunities for case-by-case release consideration based on who they are today and what they’ve done to change.
As a survivor I seek real safety – and I urge all Western New York lawmakers to back these bills.
Amber Vlangas is executive director for the Restorative Action Alliance.
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