Imaginary Lines

Facebook Twitter More...

By Heidi Mueller
Executive Director, Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission
Juvenile Justice Specialist, State of Illinois

For as long as I can remember, politicians have rallied voters with promises of “protecting victims” by clearing our streets of all the “criminals.” The picture painted is simple: victims and law abiding community members stand on one side of the line, and offenders stand on the other. This victim/offender dichotomy extends well beyond the world of politics. Even in the advocacy world, an imaginary line seems to be drawn between victims’ advocates or anti-violence advocates and those who advocate for people in the criminal or juvenile justice system.

It doesn’t take long for anyone working closely with kids in the juvenile justice system to realize that the line dividing victim from offender doesn’t really exist. Although many victims never come into conflict with the law, so many youth in the system have experienced significant trauma and victimization. These youth cross over from victim to offender and back again and, in fact, may break the law and experience victimization at the same time. 

In the same way, most of us in the community of people who have been victimized know that our characterization as a monolithic body who collectively cry out for the same “tough on crime” approach is false. As the Juvenile Justice Specialist for the State of Illinois, I have participated in many meetings with advocates, legislators, and juvenile justice practitioners discussing “what victims want,” or “how to include victims in the discussion.” I have found that, in most of these discussions, few people consider the possibility that we victims may also be among those advocating for juvenile justice reform. The truth is, some of us victims recognize fellow victims among those youth in the juvenile justice system—along with their families and communities, and even law enforcement tasked with “cleaning up the streets” who may experience trauma on a daily basis—and want them to be able to heal, too. Most importantly, many of us just want the system to work better and more fairly for everyone.

The path to healing is different for everyone, and there are many victims who do want harsher penalties for offenders, or who want to stay out of the discussion altogether. But politicizing victims and offenders to create an “us” versus “them” mentality is not only misleading, it is also detrimental to all. Safer, healthier communities will result when kids have the support they need to heal, learn, and grow into healthy, responsible adults—regardless of whether we identify them as “victims” or “offenders.” We move closer to achieving this goal when we spend our energy reaching out, instead of drawing imaginary lines.

Heidi Mueller serves as the Executive Director of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission (State Advisory Group for Illinois) and the state Juvenile Justice Specialist. She brings to this role over 14 years of experience working with and on behalf of at-risk and juvenile justice system involved youth, first through direct service and later through program and policy development and legal advocacy. She joined the Commission after serving three years as the Director of Juvenile Justice Programs at Youth Outreach Services in Chicago, where she focused on improving juvenile justice system responses to youth who come into contact with the law through community partnerships, diversion programs, and system reforms. Her experience also includes legal practice as a defense attorney, community-based program development, and front-line youth services. Ms. Mueller holds a dual bachelor’s degree in history and psychology from Macalester College, a graduate degree in Experimental Social Psychology and a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School. In addition to her work with the Commission, she was appointed in 2013 to the Truancy in Chicago Public Schools Task Force.