Crime Victims, Former Offenders Contribute a Unique Perspective

Article excerpt

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. …