In a recent open letter to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, 67 affiliates of the University of Alabama School of Law asked for the release of “all inmates over the age of 60; those with chronic illnesses, complex medical needs, compromised immune systems, and disabilities; and pregnant women” (“An open letter to Gov. Ivey from 67 in UA law community.”) In this open letter, students and professors from the law school specifically reference the Alabama Emergency Management Act, which asserts that the Governor has the power to exercise any “functions, powers and duties as are necessary to promote and secure the safety and protection of the civilian population” (Ala. Code § 31-9-8).
The signatories make a compassionate plea for the safety of incarcerated persons during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they fail to consider another vulnerable group of citizens in need of safety and protection: victims of violent crime and their families. Unfortunately, this lack of sympathy for victims and their families has become a popular trend in institutions of higher education across the country. It is quite telling that victims and victim’s advocates are rarely invited to speak on campus in addition to the public defenders and felons who are. This reveals a grievous lack of sympathy for those who have endured mental and physical trauma at the hands of convicted felons. From their open letters and choices of keynote speakers, to their professor appointments and school organizations, it has become obvious that many law schools, including Alabama’s School of Law have little regard for victims of crime, the very ones who would be most affected by a broad release of prisoners.
Eric Schlosser noted the beginning of this trend in an article for the Atlantic Monthly. “Academic elites are drawn to the figure of the murderer, which has long been a focus of attention for psychiatrists, sociologists, and criminologists.” This institutional fascination has further pushes to the margins those at the other end of criminal acts. “A vast amount of research has been conducted on murderers in order to predict their violent behavior, understand their social context, restrain them, rehabilitate them, and promote their moral and spiritual reform. During the past twenty-five years hundreds of articles in psychiatric journals have examined
the homicidal mind. Fewer than a dozen have explored how a homicide affects the victim's family” (Schlosser, “A Grief Like No Other”).
Schlosser’s article, published in 1997, remains painfully relevant and will continue to remain so until our educational institutions move beyond political biases. There are other, less dangerous ways of halting the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, and we know that the learned and considerate affiliates of the University of Alabama School of Law, will discover and advocate these possibilities in order to promote the safety and protection of all civilians, inmate and victim alike. The protection of the vulnerable is a matter of upmost importance, and as Schlosser says, “Our refusal to acknowledge the plight of murder victims and their survivors is a dangerous form of denial—a flight from reality that allows lethal violence to flourish.”
If the students and professors at the University of Alabama Law School want to help the marginalized and neglected, then we urge them to consider victims of violent crime and their families. Read about the experiences of victims, and try to understand their fears before you recommend the release of “nearly 1,000 individuals” to “homes with loving family members or in any of the vacant dorm rooms or hotel rooms in the state.” Consider the grieving families of victims; consider the family members who were the victims of these felons’ acts. Consider those whose greatest fear is finding their assailants once again on the streets.
If this were an open letter, if we were addressing the University of Alabama School of Law, we would ask: why? Why are victims not invited to speak to your students? Why are public defenders lauded, and exonerated felons invited to give speeches on your campus, when District Attorneys and survivors of crime are not? Can you answer this question without indicting your institution’s biased political stances? Are victims really less important to you than the appearance of being sympathetic to criminals and prisoners? Especially when it’s not the students and faculty of a law school who will be facing the consequences, but the victims, once again.