From the fourth floor of the Capitol Tuesday morning, visitors could hear the chanting: “When survivors speak, change happens!”
The chant came from the group of attendees for the Fifth Annual Survivors Speak event, hosted by the Alliance for Safety and Justice Crime Survivors Unit. The group is part of a more extensive network working to create healing communities and shape public safety policy.
“If you talk to crime survivors like we have around the state, you’ll find that most haven’t been supported by the government or justice system, and they want better and different outcomes out of the criminal justice system right now,’ said Sabhash Kateel, Florida State director for the Alliance for Safety and Justice. “Most people say they want to do something different, and what they mean by that is they want to focus more on prevention and rehabilitation. They want to focus less on locking people up that haven’t caused any harm or hurt anybody, but they also want to make sure that, if you’re exiting the justice system, you are doing so with the capacity to be better rather than worse.”
Crime survivors, community supporters and state officials shared their experiences with violent crimes and discussed their plans of action to improve state policy. In sharing their stories, they hoped to influence change.
For survivor Sharon Demers, that starts by leading by example.
Demers, who has survived several violent crimes from burglary and attempted carjacking to sexual assault, says that even though she went through these experiences and had to heal from them, she never saw herself as a victim and never let those experiences keep her from living a fulfilling life.
“The crime survivors believe that if you don’t take action, history repeats itself,” Demers said. “So by helping on the justice end of it, they can help stop the hamster wheel of everything happening over and over again. I consider myself to be someone who has myself together. I have a successful life, and even with these crimes that happened to me, I didn’t let them weigh me down. If you can see me as a successful businesswoman and that I overcame these things and didn’t let them bring me down, then you can see and have hope.”
State and local government officials also spoke at the event to bring awareness to three bills passing through the Legislature that would increase protection for crime victims.
State Senator Shervin Jones spoke to the crowd about Ava’s law, which aims to protect incarcerated pregnant women and girls, as well as HB223/SB490 (Curtis’ Law), SB376/HB593, and HB1263/SB1478.
Crime survivor and Alliance for Safety and Justice member Doris Strong said that when it comes to violent crimes, many perpetrators may have what she refers to as “emotional wellness issues” that, if not addressed, can cause violent crimes. She hopes that these bills will offer real help to those who need it to prevent future acts of violence.
“Being a part of crime, survivors, safety and justice really gave me a seat at the table when it comes to changing policies,” Strong said. “We want someone that goes into prison to come out better than they were when they went in and so the bills that we put on the table, those bills are to help victims gain service to help.
Strong, who has attended the past three events at the Capitol, said it is an opportunity for victims and survivors to come together and build a support system of people who have had similar experiences.
“It was amazing,” Strong said. “This is my fourth year with Survivors Speak and this was the best event that I have been to out of the four years. Even the representatives that we talked to they were engaged, they listened to what we had to say.”