Commentary: Criminal justice system — victims need not apply

For the better part of 20 years, I had the honor of serving thousands of victims of violent crimes in Snohomish County — child sexual assault victims, adult domestic violence vicitms, adult and juvenile assault victims, and families of homicide victims. I served as a community mental health clinician, a Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office victim/witness advocate, and most recently as the domestic violence coordinator in the Edmonds Police Department. Although it was a very difficult decision for me, I left my position in January 2022. I loved my job, and the people — survivors, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, probation officers, mental health counselors, community advocates — with whom I had the pleasure to work, but the professional reasons that led to my resignation have only become more concerning. Since my departure, the law firm who contracted prosecution services to the city for decades also severed their contract with Edmonds.

Washington State has historically been a trailblazer when it comes to crafting and recognizing crime victims’ rights. However, as societal and cultural norms often do, the pendulum has swung, and it has done so dramatically. We went from evolving out of a time when domestic violence was considered to be a“private, family matter,” to knowing better and doing better; recognizing that domestic violence affects us all, and that we must speak up and reach out to help victims suffering, often silently. We evolved from a place of not talking about childhood sexual assault, to creating safe spaces to ensure that children know it is not their fault, and there are adults who will stand up for them.

We learned that not intervening, and turning a blind eye, was only perpetuating violence and mental health issues against (usually) women, children, family pets and future generations. We learned that survivors were often too afraid or too psychologically manipulated by their abusers to speak up or ask for help. We learned that speaking up on behalf of victims was sometimes the only way to ensure their safety. This knowledge and practice of advocating for crime victims was something that I was proud to be a part of in my various positions throughout Snohomish County. However, for the past few years, crime victim service providers have been faced with the development of an appalling culture of prioritizing alleged and convicted offenders’ feelings and comfort over their victims. For the first few hundred years of our criminal justice system, it was one thing not to acknowledge that victims should have a voice in the judicial process regarding the crime that often dramatically and directly impacted their lives. Today, it is quite another to know that those victims exist, know that there is a Victims Bill of Rights (RCW 7.69.030), and still try to disregard the victims’ voices, experiences and traumas. Again, if you know better, you must do better. We do, in fact, know better, but we are failing our victims.

I became more concerned with the lack of accountability for alleged and convicted offenders in my jurisdiction (despite grave safety concerns): No-contact orders no longer being issued in domestic violence cases, people charged with violent offenses being released without bail, no jail or treatment requirements for convicted offenders, no courtroom consequences for charged individuals violating their conditions of release, no requirement for a charged individual to show up for court (virtually or otherwise)). I raised my concerns up the chain of command, as well as directly to the other professionals in the court system (judge and public defenders). I made a plea for everyone to return to a place of working collaboratively, respecting each other’s different roles and goals, but to also be aware of the lethality issues we face in not taking domestic violence cases seriously. I spoke about losing a victim of domestic violence to homicide,and how I didn’t want any of us to experience that again. I was met with stony silence, and only one response…although I had been making general comments about “victims” and “offenders,” one public defender simply said, “I find it offensive for you to refer to them as offenders. They are clients.”

After months of frustration, the takeaway for me, and the clear message being sent by the judge and the public defenders, was that the only people being considered in the criminal justice process were the criminals — their housing, finances, employment and general well-being. I was told that I was overstepping by recommending no-contact orders be issued when the victims were not requesting one (again, a long-standing practice in our region because we know that victims are afraid for their lives to speak out against their abusers). When advocating that we prioritize the safety and emotional well-being of a victim and her/his children over the alleged offender, the judge said that she would not prevent the alleged offender from returning home, as he may not have another place to stay. In other words, if the victim wanted to feel safe, she would need to find another place to stay.

For decades, I have told my victims and their families, “It is called the criminal justice system for a reason. The criminals have all the rights, and you will not feel like this process is fair.” I know this, and I don’t expect any different. I also know that serving a population who has been harmed (oftentimes by a family member or loved one), frequently made me the person to whom anger, fear and aggression was directed. I am used to that. I am OK with being the “bad guy” who is trying to keep victims safe, and who wants to see them be survivors. However, it is unacceptable to me for the very people with whom I was working in the criminal justice system to not recognize that my role was to speak up for victims and try to fight for their safety. Interestingly, the concept of gaslighting is a well-known tactic by domestic violence abusers. They make their victims feel like they are crazy, that they are the problem, and that their fears, concerns, grievances, experiences aren’t real. The criminal justice culture (locally and nationally) has become one that gaslights victims, their service providers, and law enforcement officers by telling us that we are the problem, and that offenders need more freedom and forgiveness. Remember, it is the criminal justice system — victims need not apply.

Unless you have been a victim of a violent crime, and live with the emotional and physical consequences that result from enduring that trauma, you may not prioritize understanding the inner workings of the criminal justice system. However, it is vitally important for a safe and thriving community to be knowledgeable of how functional or dysfunctional their criminal justice system is. When you know better, you must do better. In Edmonds, the mayor and city council oversee the judge and the contract with the prosecutors and public defenders. Your vote for elected individuals does matter, and those elections do have consequences. It is time for a change in the Edmonds city leadership.

— By Jill A. Schick, M.S., C.A.

The former domestic violence coordinator for the Edmonds Police Department, Jill Schick holds a bachelor of science degree in psychology, a master of science degree in marriage and family therapy, and her national credentialing as an advanced advocate with specialities in domestic violence and sexual assault.

  1. Amen to all of that!
    It’s so refreshing and gives me hope to hear common sense arguments being shared
    out loud and without apology in this upside down world we live in.

    Thanks for speaking out with such clarity and forthrightness.
    There is right & wrong.
    There is good & evil.
    People who do bad things need to be held accountable. While some might benefit from rehabilitation of some kind depending on their experience, they should still be held accountable for their actions. It’s parenting 101.

    Why have we allowed the lines to be so blurred?
    Afraid that you’ll be ostracized or canceled?
    Apathy? Checked out?

    The stability of our society depends on all of us abiding by and demanding that the idea of being accountable for, and owning the consequences of, our actions be enforced.
    I acknowledge that there are those who have a different vision of what our society should look like. Whether they are elitists or recklessly misinformed, either way, the outcome isn’t pretty.
    We are on the precipice.
    Our votes are our voice so please do your homework.

    1. Thank you. Jill. Excellent and important letter. I retired from juvenile justice work 5 years ago with many of the frustrations you talk about just beginning. Our elections are so important -All of them, from school board to city, county, state and federal, the judges! Educate yourself and VOTE!

  2. Thanks Jill, your voice and your words are important. No matter who is elected, we need to take domestic violence seriously. Appreciate your public service and continued passion.

  3. I’m curious what change the letter writer would like to see from the city. It seems like they have a real heart for service but a lot of their talking points seem to be based on a punitive model of the criminal legal system, and I thought domestic violence advocates had been working towards a different approach in recent years. The anthology Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement is a good place to start if folks want to learn more.

    Also, I might get roasted for saying this, but cash bail is a horrible system that disproportionately affects poor people and people of color. It’s illogical that pre-trial jail time should be based on one’s ability to pay. There has to be a better way to keep people safe while not rendering those who have been arrested homeless and jobless.

  4. As an Edmonds voter, how can I find out which city council members do not reflect my values / morals? None of the voter promo materials speak to these issues and web pages don’t either. The court system is of major importance to me and I need to know what lawyers and judges are deciding. How does a voter access this information? Transparency, please.

    1. I agree local and regional criminal justice reform has gone to far we need dangerous people kept out of the general population. Too many third, or more chances.

    2. Hi Christine ,
      Outside of tracking Legislation and voting records, following local actions, meetings and voting records, I do my research a number of ways:
      1) by discussing candidates with others to see who they support, and why.
      2) I can also learn a lot by researching where a candidate’s campaign contributions are coming from and whether there are a lot of contributions coming from non- local sources.
      My Edmonds News typically publishes this report for local candidates during the election cycle.
      Here is a link to the most recent on 9/25. https://myedmondsnews.com/2023/09/campaign-finance-reports-for-local-races-as-of-sept-25-2023/

      PDC link:
      https://www.pdc.wa.gov/political-disclosure-reporting-data

      3) If I see a Union endorsement and/or contribution, I look up the Union or Organization and check out what their website says their priorities are. I look for any Legislation they might be talking about on their website and the position they support. I find this to be a very effective way to vet candidate’s because Unions support like-minded, policy-aligned candidates. Lastly, I check The Progressive Voter’s Guide -can be googled by that name- this guide is quick and easy way to identify the policy and ideological leanings of a particular candidate if they are recommended/endorsed by the Progressive Voter’s Guide, they support Progressive policies.

    3. Hi Christine
      Tried to reply directly to you in this thread but it didn’t work out. See my reply to your question below!

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