An Oral History of the Crime Victim Assistance Field
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Sharon English
Biography & Interview Summary

Picture from Sharon English
Interviewee:Sharon English;
Sacramento, CA
Date of Interview:February 25, 2003
Location:Sacramento, CA

Sharon English

Retired, and California Youthful Offender Parole Board Hearing Officer




Biography

Sharon English's career began by working with juvenile offenders but, by 1978, she had seen enough victims of those offenders to shift her work to trying to help their victims. Her work then focused on victim assistance in the juvenile corrections system, including developing offender accountability programs and the Nation's first "Impact of Crime on Victims Program". She is also the survivor of the murder of her mother Chloe.

Initial Involvement in the Crime Victims' Movement

Sharon English was a parole agent with the California Youth Authority when she first became involved in the victims' movement. She had been doing a great deal of work with one 16-year-old parolee when, one day, she went to his home to tell him about a job she had found for him. When she arrived, she found his 14-year-old girlfriend sitting on the curb, badly beaten.

English remembers asking herself, "What am I doing?" At that same time, awareness about domestic violence was growing. Shortly after this revelation, English began monitoring state funding for non-profit organizations that were working on delinquency prevention and community corrections. Through a series of challenging conversations with a local judge, crime victims and her supervisor, James Rowland (the "father of the victim impact statement), English began developing the California Youth Authority's victim services program.

"And she looked at me and she said, 'so, you're with the Youth Authority.' And I said, 'oh, yes, I am.' And she said, 'well, I'd like to know something about the Youth Authority. ... I'd like to find out where an offender is .... a drunk driver killed my son. And I would like to know where he is and how he's doing. I'd like to know what his program is.' And I said, 'well, we can't release information to the general public because these are juvenile offenders.' And she said, 'I am not the general public. I am the mother of a dead little boy'."

Interview Summary

Context of the Era

English describes the field 30 years ago with one word: "sparse." In the late 1960s and 1970s, there was a large activist movement following the civil rights, women's rights and anti-war movements. An outgrowth of the women's movement was the focus on domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. However, at that time there were very few, if any, services available to these victims. English recalls meeting several women who were starting some of the very first programs in California, if not the United States. She remembers,

"back then, there were a handful of programs trying to handle thousands of victims."

"...there was a lot of momentum among people. We had a lot of crime victims willing to speak out.... At the same time a number of people were elected to office at the Presidential level and the Governor's level who said, 'we are interested in this issue and we're gonna' put some people in place to make things happen.' Now if those things had not come together.... none of this would have happened."

Greatest Challenge

English sees the greatest challenge in training professionals who work in the criminal justice system about crime victims' issues. For the most part, they are well-trained about offenders' rights and issues, yet never really learn anything about victims. English remembers being told, "don't even read the files because you don't want to be prejudiced about this offender." So the challenge was getting people to think from the victim's perspective and the impact of the crime on them. It took time and the involvement of victims who were willing to come into the institutions and talk about their experiences with the offenders. Eventually, the young men would begin to talk about the victimization in their families, and what started as an educational model became a broader treatment model.

Successful Strategies

English's secret strategy was based on the old saying, "You don't want the camels outside your tent. Bring the camels into the tent." Following this idea, English worked hard to bring all interested parties to the table, especially crime victims. Bringing victims to the table and giving them a role in setting policy also allowed them to voice their concerns directly to officials. They no longer felt they needed to picket the parole board or speak to the press about how the system didn't care. Not only did they have an avenue to voice their concerns, they knew that they were being heard. A Victim Advisory Council for the California Youth Authority was formed as a result of the initial meetings.

Failures

English sees two areas that still need attention. The first is ensuring that everyone who works with crime victims receives training early in their careers and on an ongoing basis. As she sees it, "we just assume because we're advocates and we feel so strongly about things that everybody else gets it. Well, they don't." English believes that the training is not just for advocates, but for everyone in the justice system, no matter how minimal their contact with victims. The second issue relates to preparing and mentoring advocates to do this work and to keep the momentum moving forward. She realizes that so much of the early work in the movement was "built on the personalities of the people driving the issue." English wonders what happens when they retire or die; "who takes the lead then?"

Greatest Accomplishment

English calls our greatest accomplishment "the power of the personal story." English admires the strength that crime victims show in coming forward to tell share their personal experiences and to tell us what needs to be done. She says,

"without the victims' voices, we would not be doing much and we wouldn't know what to do. So I really think it's a tribute to the strength of crime victims, who want to get something done, to see if there's a way to make the world a better place."

Continuing the Field's Growth and Professionalism

English hopes that people will see serving crime victims as a profession and a career choice. While she encourages the development of professional degrees, she doesn't want the field to leave behind the crime victims who want to serve. She wants to "continue to work on a way to involve them, to not cut them out of... whatever we develop."

Vision for the Future

English has a vision of the future involving three often neglected areas -- religious diversity and post-conviction services. She feels strongly that "we have neglected to understand other people and their belief systems, and that we often offend them because we don't understand their belief systems." English would also like the field to look for a better way to provide services through the appeals process and death penalty cases. Finally, she would encourage all service providers to not be "pigeon-holed as the victim person" -- to look for opportunities to be seen as someone other than the person who tells the horrible stories.

Greatest Fear

Her biggest fear for the field is complacency. English knows first-hand that the passion people feel for this work is what keeps the victim assistance field moving forward. Her concern is if we lose the passion, this work might become "routine." She also recognizes that we must make a commitment to the resources that are needed to serve crime victims.

"There has to be an institutional shift... in terms of public policy. And that crime victims are not just a little exit on the freeway, that they are part of the main traffic on the justice road... and that they should not be just singled out."